Gov. John Kitzhaber is negotiating to keep two sets of inflammatory initiatives from becoming ballot measures in 2014 so they don't threaten his plans to reform the state's tax system in 2015.
"The governor has been working to get all the divisive measures off the ballot in 2014 and is working to get business and labor collaborating on a set of issues in the broader interest of the state," said Kitzhaber's spokesman Tim Raphael.
One set of three initiatives would effectively turn Oregon into a "right-to-work" state. They would apply only to public employment, but public unions are larger and more well-organized in Oregon than private sector unions.
One of the ballot initiatives, called the "Public Employees Choice Act," would allow public employees to work in union-represented positions without joining the union. They would receive all the benefits and representation the union provides but would not have to pay dues.
The other two would forbid the state from collecting union dues or political donations through members' paychecks, which would make it hard to collect dues at all.
Similar laws have been passed across the country in recent years, most notably in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Democrats almost universally oppose these laws, as they say "right-to-work" laws erode unions' power and workers' protections.
The other set of initiatives would raise taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. They were all filed by Patrick Green, longtime executive director of Our Oregon, a coalition of left-leaning groups, including nearly all Oregon's prominent unions.
Raphael said Kitzhaber is working to keep all of these off the ballot because he wants both sides working together by the time 2015 rolls around, not torn apart by a nasty campaign over union funding or substantial tax increases.
House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-West Eugene, said she supports Kitzhaber's efforts.
"I don't think a right-to-work fight is beneficial for our state," she said. "It's a waste of political energy."
She said it would be a "brutal fight" and would take resources away from the tax reform effort, which will be difficult all on its own.
Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore said Kitzhaber's negotiation attempt "is actually pretty common," although it usually takes place within the legislature, not the governor's office.
Kitzhaber said this month that he has been working for about 18 months to get labor and business groups to reach a consensus on what they could support when it comes to reforming Oregon's tax code.
Moore said both sides' support is crucial because business and labor are the biggest political bases for the Republicans and Democrats, respectively. If they support the tax changes, he said, it will make it easier for legislators to get on board.
The ballot measures could break that delicate consensus by pitting business and labor against each other, he said.
The initiatives would create campaigns centered on ideas such as "Taxes hurt small businesses," or "Public employee unions should have less funding, not more," and on and on, Moore said.
And those talking points will spill over from November into January.
"The conversation (in 2015) will be a reflection of the campaign in 2014," he said. "Ballot measures like this are used as cudgels in the legislature."
He said it's more likely Kitzhaber will succeed in persuading Our Oregon and the labor unions to back off on their tax measures than dissuading the right-to-work supporters.
"Right to work has national import," he said.
Even now, with Kitzhaber in negotiations and the election more than a year away, all these initiatives are raising a lot of money from big names.
The primary right-to-work initiative received $6,000 from Loren Parks, a right-wing political activist. It also received $6,000 from Andrew Miller, president of Stimson Lumber, and $30,000 from the Freres Lumber Co.
Meanwhile, the six tax increase initiatives have ample financial backing too.
AFSCME Council 75, the state's second-largest public employee union, has given $25,000.
Even so, the governor is hoping none of these initiatives ever see the light of day, in order for his tax reform plan to have a chance of passing.
"He's trying to create a context where the legislature feels they're doing what the people want," Moore said, and neither of these ballot initiatives would help with that conversation at all.
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