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Dismantling citizen access

The ruling that initiatives must have only one topic is the wrong solution

For evidence that there's a wrong way to keep the state's initiative system in check, take a gander at the work of the Oregon Supreme Court.

Its regular attacks on citizen initiatives that have amended the state Constitution have led Oregon elections officials to reject the wording of nearly half proposed so far for the November 2004 ballot.

The court's rationale: its 1998 ruling that initiatives attempting to amend the Constitution must stick to a single subject.

If that sounds reasonable enough, it's not turning out to be.

After the 1998 ruling overturning a victims' rights initiative, the court used the single-subject rule to toss a term limits measure, a property-compensation measure and a union fund-raising measure. Just this month, it threw out a 2000 measure prohibiting government seizures before conviction in drug cases.

— Elections officials, following the court's lead, have refused to accept the wording of 11 of 30 constitutional amendments proposed for the November 2004 ballot. Four others have been OK'd.

Critics of the 101-year-old initiative system ' itself a product of voters ' might be inclined to think of all this as a reasonable way to rein in a system run amok. In 2000, a mind-numbing 18 initiatives appeared on the ballot.

But we don't think this approach will work in Oregon's favor.

An obvious question, first, is where the closet-cleaning will stop now that it's started.

If any constitutional amendment that includes more than one subject is fair game, the court might legitimately take on most of the dozens of high-profile initiatives that have shaped Oregon. (Our vote: Start with the complex and destructive tax limits of the '90s.)

Then there's the effect on proposals still to come. Elections officials' rejections this year have turned away proposals that would limit unions' political fund-raising, that would replace property taxes with a sales tax and that would change how the Constitution is amended.

People who have attempted to file proposals with the elections department say it's almost impossible to meet the single-subject rule. One proposal rejected this year was a single sentence.

The court has defended the 1998 decision by saying the state Constitution itself bans initiatives containing multiple amendments. But that, like much of law, is an interpretation.

It is one that, after just five years, has significantly reduced access to a process designed with access in mind.

That's not a solution to the system's problems but a problem in itself.