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The string pullers (a series)

Ridenbaugh Press’ purpose is to provide some perspective and understanding of events and developments in – the evolution of – the Northwest. That in itself is a little revolutionary; most of us are “stovepiped” in the news of our specific state, and the larger review of the Northwest can put those events in a little . . . different perspective. But sometimes developments or trends that hit even across this region can be properly understood only in a larger context even than regional. A string of ballot initiatives invading the political worlds of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, for example: We can best understand what we’re seeing in these states now, and what is likely ahead in the next election cycle or two, by broadening our vision.

The initiative and the referendum, as staples of American politics, are just about a century old. At the twilight of the 1800s and the dawn of the next century, Oregon was being prodded to paving a new direction in politics of and by and for the people. William S. U’Ren, the Oregon legislator (briefly, and unsuccessfully) and activist and lobbyist (high successfully) was the man who chiefly led the crusade, arguing that ordinary people had not the “tools” – his expression, taken from his days in farming and machine repair work – to bend the government to their will. He feared the well-heeled special interests who too often took over the machinery of government; the popular ballot, he felt, would provide a useful and powerful counterbalance.

At times it has.

But what U’Ren would find today, on reviewing the ballot issue scene in 2006, would likely shock him: Very narrow and very well-heeled special interests that have hijacked the normal course of politics in state after state – by way of the ballot issue.

Ballot issues are used for many things, and some of them follow very much the tracks U’Ren might have intended. But as this century has worn on, the device has become increasingly divorced from the idealism, of a localized popular control, which gave it life.

This is not a completely new development. In the 1970s, for example, California passed a ballot initiative limiting the property tax. Called Proposition 13 (and destined to serve as a financial trouble-source for years to come, not nearly the help to taxpayers it was billed), it quickly spawned copycats in other states. But the efforts behind those copycats were at least usually home grown; in Idaho, for instance, a group of tax activists in the Boise and Coeur d’Alene areas independently seized on the California example to pass their own. (With, to be sure, some outside support.)

In this new decade, though, as the Oregon initiative (with others following) passes its centennial, the ballot issue has become a plaything of wealthy, cynical crackpots who throw money – by the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions – into ballot propositions in faraway states. They get them on the ballot by hiring armies of paid signature gatherers, and they get them passed – sometimes – by underwriting ad and public relations campaigns that often wildly misrepresent the real intent and effect of the measures. If they pass in one state, sometimes even if they fail, the issue is passed along to the next state, or the next, or a group of them at once.

These ballot issues are not random. They do share a bottom line: A reduction or elimination of government regulation or taxation, of types that chiefly allow them to do as they wish, the desires of less powerful or influential fellow citizens be damned. Any governmental exercise that levels the playing field for – on one hand – the wealthy and the connected and – on the other – everyone else, appears to be fair game. (Once, for example, independent courts are neutralized, the powerful and wealthy people in society are unrestrained from acting, if they choose, as bullies on the playground.)

Bill Sizemore, an Oregonian with a hand in developing many ballot issues in recent years, recently addressed a concern with a businessman who has contributed (massively) the campaign of one gubernatorial candidate: “I suppose that there is reasonable cause for a second look anytime any candidate for a high public office gets a large chunk of money from any one source. Inquiring minds immediately want to know what the rich guy is going to get in return for his money. It is one thing to wonder.”

Surely the same applies to the subject of ballot issues: Motivation and interest are hardly irrelevant there, either.

more . . .

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