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49, 50 and change

Our general election ballots showed up last weekend, and we’re back from a walk to deposit them in the local ballot box. Filling them out didn’t take long since on our ballots there were only two questions to decide: Measure 49, and Measure 50.

The campaigns around both are ferocious, and as light as many Oregonians’ ballots are this season, most people in the state nonetheless probably know well that an election is on. There are too many road signs to miss.

Our votes went in favor of both measures, not because either is necessarily perfect, but because they represent an improvement on what currently is. And that’s enough. If they turn out to have problems, which could happen, there’s a legislative session nearly next year and another election a year from now, for dealing with that. The endless commercials blasting both seem overblown at best, or maybe deeply dishonest, when you bear in mind the changeability of legislation.

Measure 49, after all, is aimed at exactly that: Amending an earlier ballot issue, Measure 37 from 2004, which dramatically changed Oregon land use law.

The text of Measure 49 is on the long side, as the Salem Statesman-Journal said in its editorial in opposition: “We dare you to read Measure 49 before voting on it. All 13,414 words. And then make sense of the measure. Therein lies its fatal flaw. By toying with the state’s land-use system instead of reforming it, the measure would accomplish the opposite of what its backers seek.”

We took the dare and did read it – all 13,414 words – and didn’t have great difficulty making sense of it. The Statesman-Journal‘s objection on this ground is simply odd, for a capital city newspaper. (If length is a legitimate objection, then a lot of bills passed each year in Oregon and elsewhere, and objected to by no one, should be tossed out.) Legislation is often written like this, for good reason, and the short-cut, over-simplified approach in Measure 37 is a significant part of what was wrong with it. Lots of sheer information – from issues like transferability to basic matters of process, to what about the property and other rights of neighbors and others affected by developments – was simply left out, ignored, left for (someone? anyone? the courts?) to make up as we all rolled along. Part of what Measure 49 does is put this basic legal process, definition and descriptive information into the law, which the writers of Measure 37 didn’t do and would eventually have to be done anyway.

A lot of the length of Measure 49 comes from repetition, because the process and conditions it sets apply differently according to what type of property is involved (urban or rural, high-value farm or not, etc.) or when the claim is filed. Only a portion of Measure 49 actually applies to any specific piece of property. Measure 49 at least is properly drafted legislation. (It may generate legal arguments and challenges, but likely not more than Measure 37 – and probably fewer, because it is written in detailed enough fashion to properly cover its bases.) And long though it may be, its pieces are plainly enough written and not especially hard to understand.

It does not “take your property away” (as we’ve heard it very dishonestly put – we saw no such provision when we read the measure). As a whole, it seems to put Oregon’s land use system somewhere in between where it was before Measure 37, and where it is today. Taken as a whole, it looks like an improvement over either approach.

Is it perfect? Certainly not by our standards, and likely not by many others. But then, land use ought to be an ongoing review. Measure 37’s virtue was in demonstrating that land use in Oregon need not be soldered into one place forever. Measure 49 may be the necessary next step in a series of long-term improvements.

The two key objections to Measure 50, which increases the state cigarette tax by 84.5 cents, the money to be largely given over to covering children’s health care, also relate to this matter of permanence.

The critics of 50 haven’t focused much on the core issue – raising cigarette taxes to underwrite health care for children – presumably because that concept sounds like a clear electoral winner. They’ve focused instead on two related issues, both somewhat relevant, but neither of which has business being decisive.

One is the softness of the cigarette tax. The number of cigarette smokers, and cigarette buyers (mainly from Washington, where the tax is higher), seems likely to diminish over time, and the more quickly if the new increase is passed: A weak basis for covering children’s health care, right? And it would be, if you assume that the financing or the structuring of children’s health care will never change. But between the new Oregon state health insurance plan, also passed this session, federal efforts gathering steam, and other developments, chances are good that six or seven years from now there’ll be less need for cigarette tax revenue on that front. So why pass this thing? Because of the tens of thousands of children out there right now who have no meaningful access to health care. Is the cigarette tax increase a solid “forever” fix? Likely not. But it could do an immense amount of good in the short term, while the larger structures are being put in place. The aim is correction of a scandal of massive proportions; the cause is substantial and worthy.

The other argument does bother us (though we’re puzzled at the idea that so many Oregonians will be as upset by it): The inclusion of the tax increase, and its use, in the state constitution – a new thing. Our view long has been that state constitutions generally ought to be a lot leaner than they are, in general documents of structure and basic principle, not setters of policy. Is this a fatal flaw? It might be if the Oregon constitution were such a pristine document to start with, but, as the Oregonian has pointed out in a fine historical review, the constitution has been cluttered up with all manner of pieces of legislation, more than 200 of them, in the last century. As a larger-scale matter, we’d be in favor of cleaning out the document and moving the policy stuff into the state code, and while we’re at it setting a higher bar for amending the document at all. But, since amendment is so easy, there’s no reason the material in Measure 50 couldn’t simply be added to the code in the next session or two, and amended out of the constitution after.

If either of these measures pass (or for that matter if they don’t), the story will not be over on land use or on children’s health. Both subjects will continue to demand attention, and will get it. The immediate issue is, will Oregon’s people be better off, for now, if they pass?

We marked our ballots after concluding they would.

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