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Referendum rule change isn't really about the little guy

A proposal to change the rules for referendum petitions to overturn new laws has both sides of the political spectrum bickering about “special interests” manipulating the process. Ordinary voters should view this with some amusement.

Under Oregon law, voters can enact legislation through initiative petitions and repeal laws passed by the Legislature through referendum campaigns. The rule in question specifies when opponents of a new law can start gathering signatures to refer it to voters.

As it stands, a referendum petition can be launched only after the governor signs a bill into law. The governor has 30 days to do so after the Legislature adjourns, but the law also says petitioners must finish collecting referendum signatures within 90 days after adjournment. If the governor takes the full 30 days to sign, that leaves just 60 days to collect signatures. The number of signatures currently required, based on election turnout in previous elections, is 74,680.

A Salem lawyer has asked Secretary of State Bev Clarno to change that rule so signature-gathering could start as soon as a bill passes both houses of the Legislature. Steve Elzinga, the requester, previously worked for Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, Elzinga says he is trying to carry out a change Richardson supported.

Our Oregon, a union-backed political organization, says the change would give special interests — specifically business interests — too much ability to interfere in the legislative process. Elzinga scoffs at this, saying it’s “highly ironic” that Our Oregon — a special interest group — is opposing the move. Elzinga says the change is all about protecting the rights of “grassroots petitioners” to challenge new laws.

There is plenty of irony to go around here.

Which is more likely: that “grassroots petitioners” are paying such close attention to the Legislature that they are ready to rush into the streets and circulate referendum petitions as soon as a specific bill clears both houses, or that legislators and lobbyists who opposed a bill but didn’t have the votes to block it are poised to immediately challenge it?

The truth is, Oregon’s initiative and referendum system has been co-opted for years by special interests on both sides. Our Oregon pushes pro-union, pro-tax and other liberal causes in initiative campaigns, and conservative groups do the same with their issues. At the moment, Republicans are interested in the referendum process because Democrats control the Legislature, but that hasn’t always been the case and likely will change back at some point in the future.

Our Oregon has a point that allowing signature gathering to start even before a bill becomes law is a bit much. But a governor who sits on a bill until the last minute to make a referendum campaign fail is gaming the system, too.

Of far more consequence is a quirk in state law that says bills enacted with an emergency clause so they take effect immediately on signing cannot be challenged by referendum. If emergency clauses were confined to real emergencies, that would be one thing, but they are inserted into all kinds of bills just to prevent challenges.

The initiative and referendum system should be fair to voters — those it was designed for. But it is disingenuous for political groups any persuasion to claim to be selflessly upholding the rights of “grassroots petitioners.”