Getting ahead of the game

Lawmakers can help shape debate over ballot measures by crafting their own

When the Oregon Legislature convenes tomorrow for its abbreviated even-year session, the official agendas of both parties in both houses sound like business as usual: measures to boost job training, encourage economic growth, promote government efficiency. But lurking in the shadows are some big issues that many lawmakers know they should address because if they don't, the voters will, perhaps not in the best possible way.

Oregon's pioneering system of initiative and referendum puts in the hands of the people the power to enact legislation on their own when the Legislature cannot or will not. It's a great concept that in practice has resulted in some spectacularly bad laws.

Legislators know this; they have had to tinker with and fix a number of these measures after the fact. They also know that one way to avoid having to fix badly drafted laws enacted by initiative is to act first, draft laws that work, and offer them to voters as an alternative.

That's why the session that starts tomorrow is likely to include discussion of legalizing marijuana and privatizing liquor sales, to name two issues lawmakers likely would not be itching to tackle if initiative campaigns weren't already in the works.

The state's retail grocery industry badly wants to get in on the lucrative liquor market, and is working on an initiative to end the state monopoly on booze sales. Washington voters approved such a move in 2011.

Seeing its very existence threatened, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission is pushing a partial privatization bill to try to head off the industry campaign. The OLCC proposal would allow large grocers to sell liquor but retain state control of the inventory and maintain the network of state liquor stores. Some observers suggest the two approaches could wind up as dueling ballot measures in November.

Marijuana legalization — permitting the recreational use of pot by adults as Colorado and Washington have done — is another issue that might see head-to-head measures on the November ballot. Legalization supporters are seeking to avoid the overreaching that doomed a similar attempt in 2012. They want the Legislature to refer their measure to voters, but vow to push ahead with gathering signatures if lawmakers don't come through.

Some legislators and Gov. John Kitzhaber have said lawmakers should put their own stamp on any legalization effort so the state ends up with a well-regulated, workable market for recreational marijuana. If they don't, they may be left to deal with what proponents put before voters.

Lawmakers have been burned in the past by ignoring initiative campaigns only to face cleaning up the unintended consequences later. Action on either or both of these issues in the 2014 session would demonstrate that legislators are paying attention. Giving voters real choices would be good for Oregon and for the initiative process.

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