The Legislature approved a number of reforms this session designed to discourage the misuse of the initiative process. And then, having enhanced penalties for shady signature-gatherers and their employers, legislative leaders turned right around and gamed the system to their own benefit.
When it comes to direct democracy, it seems, all participants are equal, but some are more equal than others.
We’ll explain what lawmakers are trying to do shortly. But first, consider why they’re trying to do it: They’re afraid of voters.
The budget for the coming biennium relies upon a collection of tax hikes aimed at businesses and high-earning individuals. Both houses of the Legislature cobbled together the supermajorities needed to increase taxes without a public vote, but there’s no guarantee the tax hikes won’t land in voters’ laps anyway. By gathering enough signatures, tax opponents can refer the measures to the ballot.
And everyone knows what tends to happen when tax hikes end up on the ballot: They fail. The Legislature asked voters to raise taxes on smokers in 2007. Four hundred seventy-two thousand people said “yes” to the tax hike, and 686,000 said “no.”
We mention the effects of “yes” and “no” votes because legislative leaders are trying to reverse them. On Wednesday, according to The Oregonian, a budget subcommittee shoe horned language into House Bill 2414 that would make “yes” mean “no” and “no” mean “yes.” It would apply whenever Oregonians refer acts of the Legislature to the ballot. Acts like, for instance, huge hikes in personal and corporate taxes.
In such cases, the newly amended bill specifies, a “yes” vote rejects the legislation in question, and a “no” vote upholds it. So, if the Legislature’s big tax hikes end up on the ballot, a “yes” vote will not be a statement of support for the Legislature’s supposed wisdom. Rather, it will mean, “Yes, kill the tax.” How intuitive.
The Orwellian absurdity of this proposal is captured perfectly by the language of the legislation itself, which reads in part, “For purposes of this subsection, a measure is considered adopted if it is rejected by the people.”
According to the most charitable view, lawmakers are simply trying to capture the benefit of voters’ indecision. Conventional wisdom has it that Oregonians vote “no” on ballot measures they don’t really understand. Why, one might ask, shouldn’t voter indecision support the careful work of the Legislature rather than the divisive meddling of its detractors?
The problem with this argument is that tax hikes are incredibly simple to understand. Furthermore, the existing method of voting is far more intuitive than the proposed revision (“a measure is considered adopted if it is rejected by the people,” indeed). It seems to us, then, that some people in the Legislature would like to trick voters who don’t read their ballots very, very carefully. Kind of like unscrupulous lenders have done in recent years when selling exotic mortgages.
Imagine the outrage that would sweep the Capitol if Bill Sizemore tried something similar.
— Wescom News Service