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An absolute decision

We have a hard time absorbing the logic against the current plan for Oregon House Bill 3540 – the bill that would amend the land use initiative Measure 37.

There is always an understandable argument against legislative amendment of an initiative: The people have spoken; how dare legislators overturn their will? We have some sympathy for that view, but only up to a point. Legally, laws are laws whether passed by the legislature or by initiative, and either can be amended – changed and hopefully improved – as the years go by. It happens all the time. And there’s an especially good case for amendment of an initiative. Voters acting on ballot measures don’t have the opportunity, as legislators do, to fine tune the language and add language clarifying intent. More cleanup work is apt to be needed where gray areas exist, and Measure 37 is absolutely packed with gray areas.

The measure, as used so far, has resulted in thousands of claims by land owners to develop massive residential areas, shopping centers and even casinos on farm and timber land. Many of the proposals may never be pursued, and many others may prove impractical, but at the moment a lot of Oregonians may have their breath taken away by what they’ve unleashed.

Did the voters, who passed Measure 37 in 2004 by a big margin, intend all this, or were they simply expressing frustration at a land use governing system that had become too rigid, absolute and sometimes remote from human and societal needs and concerns? The voters never got a chance to say, then. Polling since has suggested that a majority now would repeal 37 but, of course, polls aren’t elections.

Legislators who wanted to change Measure 37 – and this has become a mostly partisan issue, Democrats favoring change and Republicans mostly standing pat – have been trying for a bipartisan legislative proposal since the start of the session. That likely was always a loser proposition, since those in favor of the measure (basically Republicans) had only to frustrate any change to accomplish their goal. So now, as we suggested a few days back, the best outcome seems likely: Put a proposal for revising Measure 37 back in front of voters.

Under the terms of HB 3540, which likely will hit the ballot, “We are not going to have major subdivisions in our state out in our farm and forest ground. That is not what Oregonians voted for in my opinion” – said Senator Kurt Schrader, D-Canby. Maybe he’s right about what they voted for, maybe not. But a vote on the new measure certainly would be a clear decision of the public.

But when Senator Larry George, R-Sherwood, remarks, “I think it’s an unfortunate turn and one of the worst efforts to overturn the will of the voters,” he’s simply wrong, if this measure is decided as a ballot issue. The voters will be heard, and will get a chance to vote up or down on something other than Measure 37. If George and his allies on this are right, and the voters got what they wanted out of 37, they will reject the new proposal. If they wanted merely a loosening of the rules rather than the sweeping effects of 37, as Schrader and his allies on this think, they can say that too. And we’ll know for sure what the voters want.

Vox populi, either way.

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