Signing Away the State 

How Out-of-State Groups are Trying to Screw Oregon

Money and petition workers are flooding into Oregon to ensure that a handful of right-wing initiatives make it onto November's ballot—and according to early results, the effort appears to be working wonders.

Last Friday, May 26, was "Early Signature Submission Day," which allows petitioners to turn their signatures in to the Oregon secretary of state for early validation. After some verification, the state informs the groups of their validity rates, giving them an idea of how many more names they need in order to qualify. (Since 20 to 30 percent of signatures are typically deemed invalid, petitioners need to collect well over their minimum.)

Among those submitted were three conservative petition efforts that have been financed by a few national right-wing organizations. For signature gathering, each of the petitions is using a company called Democracy Direct, which has ties to legendary arch-conservative Bill Sizemore and subcontracts to a firm called B&P Campaign Management. So far, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been given to Democracy Direct for petitioning services.

Democracy Direct owner Tim Trickey, B&P, and its owner, Brian Platt, are all under investigation by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) for violating state law forbidding the payment of signature gatherers per signature. State law requires that signature gatherers be paid on an hourly basis—not by the number of names they gather. B&P consultant Parker Bell was fined $2,500 in June of 2004 for violating this rule; this year, there are allegations that B&P didn't even pay their workers minimum wage. For months, B&P refused to hand over its payroll records, until Platt agreed to show up at a BOLI hearing on the afternoon of Tuesday, May 30.

But will the alleged violations stop the initiatives from making it on the ballot? If the early submission numbers hold up, that scenario doesn't seem likely. Here's what to look out for:

Initiative Petition 14, funded by Nevada-based Kevin Mannix crony Loren Parks and managed by Washington, DC-based anti-tax group FreedomWorks, would allow taxpayers to claim deductions on their state taxes for exemptions on their federal tax return. According to local advocacy group Our Oregon, this will cripple the state's ability to pay for human services and education, slashing $156 million from the 2005-2007 budget and a whopping $835 million in 2007-2009. The backers of IP14 have so far turned in 86,565 signatures; to get on the ballot, they need 75,630.

Initiative Petition 24, also managed by FreedomWorks and funded indirectly by Parks, and directly by Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy, would require that Oregon Supreme Court justices be elected by district. This would undoubtedly shift the court further to the right as the bench fills with judges from rural areas, and will potentially limit the pool of qualified candidates for the state's highest court. FreedomWorks handed in over 110,335 signatures—since the change would alter the state's constitution, they need 100,840 to get on the ballot.

Initiative Petition 57—otherwise known by the hilarious title "Government Can't Steal My Property and Give it to a Private Developer Act"—is funded by Oregonians in Action, the group that brought an end to the state's land-use laws with Measure 37, Loren Parks, and a group called "Oregonians for Affordable Housing," which is the political action committee for the Home Builders Association of Portland, a group of private developers. IP57 would limit the government's eminent domain powers. So far, its backers have turned in a whopping 116,853 signatures—they only need 75,630.

But the backers of the initiative that could have the largest impact on the state—Initiative Petition 6, the "Taxpayers Bill of Rights," or TABOR—have yet to reveal how many signatures they've gathered so far. TABOR, which is being run locally by anti-tax/small government group Taxpayer Association of Oregon, has so far been almost entirely funded by two large national groups, the Illinois-based Americans for Limited Government and the DC-based Americans for Tax Reform.

The initiative would cap state spending according to population growth, and is modeled after a similar law passed in Colorado in 1992. In Colorado, the law led to hundreds of millions of dollars being slashed from higher education, human services (like aid to the elderly), and transportation projects—and when the economy tanked, it nearly bankrupted the state.

In order to sell that future to Oregonians, the Taxpayer Association of Oregon has brought in a California firm—Arno Political Consultants—to gather petition signatures. The Sacramento-based Arno most recently made headlines as the lead signature gatherer for the repeal of Massachusetts' same-sex marriage law. There, the firm and its subcontractors are currently under investigation by the state attorney general based on claims that employees were forging signatures from one petition (legalizing the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores) to the anti-gay marriage petition.

A Massachusetts organization, KnowThyNeighbor.org, which created a database of names of people who signed the anti-gay marriage petition, began cataloging complaints made against Arno.

"[With signature gathering] there will always be accusations of fraud, of bait and switch, of impropriety," KnowThyNeighbor Director Aaron Toleos told the Mercury. "But there's enough separation between the people who back a petition and Arno, that once they start getting flack, they can leave the state."

Arno has been through Oregon before—notably, to get signatures for 2004's Measure 37. At the time, the firm came under fire for allegedly misleading statements made by its employees in order to get signatures.

Final petition counts are due in to the secretary of state's office by July 7. From there, the elections division will test a sampling of the signatures to make sure they're valid, determining what makes it on the November ballot. In the meantime, observers can expect the influx of petitioners and campaign money to turn into a tidal wave.

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