Letter from Salem: Unions Boycott an Initiative Reform

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

I showed up to the Oregon capital of Salem to observe the most significant attempt at initiative reform in the United States.

A public employee union-backed political committee that’s sponsoring an initiative here didn’t show.

Therein lies an interesting story that Californians should know. Since the reform in question could be coming our way.

The reform is an innovation called the Citizens Initiative Review. In Oregon, panels of 24 regular citizens who are representative of the voting population come together for a week to examine one statewide initiative that has qualified for the ballot. The citizens hear testimony, and get to ask questions, from advocates and opponents of the measure. They also call in witnesses and outside experts on the subject. The panelists are paid for their time and reimbursed for their travel; a state commission oversees the process, but donors, not taxpayers, pay the costs of the panel.

By week’s end, the citizens’ panel produces two short pieces of writing. One is a list of their key findings about the initiative – their view of what it would do and what’s most significant about it. Then they vote whether they support and oppose the measure. Those who say yes then write up the best arguments for the measure. Those who say no write up the best arguments against the measure. These documents – the findings, and the pros and cons – are published in the ballot guide that is sent to Oregon voters.

But this week’s Citizens Initiative Review has been different in a key way. The official sponsor of the initiative being examined refused to show up.

That sponsor was Our Oregon, a committee backed by public employee unions and a few other progressive groups. Our Oregon has qualified an initiative, Measure 85, which does a very small thing. It eliminates a corporate tax credit that is triggered in years when tax revenues exceed official projections – and dedicates that money to K-12 schools and the state general fund. (This is a minor question – the corporate tax credit has rarely been triggered and doesn’t account for much money.)

Our Oregon announced, just a week before the panel was scheduled to begin, that it was boycotting. Their stated reasons are hard to repeat without laughing. The first was that the panel would give equal time to opponents and proponents (yes, you read that right). The second was that the panels don’t make an impact on voters. Our Oregon noted that the voters in 2010, the first year the panels were formally convened, had voted in different ways than the panelists. And Our Oregon claimed an academic study had shown the panel findings hadn’t influenced.

If Our Oregon was attempting to delegitimize the process, it failed. Indeed, Our Oregon has produced a bonanza of positive publicity for the Citizens Initiative Review. News coverage and editorials have defended the Citizens Initiative Review and questioned whether Our Oregon is simply trying to avoid serious scrutiny of its initiative. And the leader author of the academic study Our Oregon cited has written that the unions’ reading of the research was wrong — the study showed that the panelists’ findings and arguments had moved voters.

The Our Oregon boycott didn’t stop the review. Supporters of the initiative who aren’t part of Our Oregon showed up anyway. Indeed, at one representative of the unions with Our Oregon also came and spoke to the panel.

Why should this matter to Californians? Because the organizers of these panels are talking to groups in other states, including California, about using the citizens’ initiative review model for ballot measures in their states. Representatives of some California good government organizations are scheduled to travel to Oregon for the next Citizens’ Initiative Review later this month.

I’ve begged the Oregon folks to find a way to bring their process to California this fall, since our state so badly needs a way to slow down, scrutinize and deliberate over ballot initiatives. And while it’s quite possible that interest groups may attempt to block this reform in California, the example of Our Oregon should serve as a warning. If you try to stop a fair, deliberative, citizen-directed process for initiatives, you will pay a price for their non-cooperation. As well you should.

UPDATE: Yes, the unions paid a price in public criticism, but not that much of the price in the end. That’s because the process is so fair that 19 of the 24 citizens indicated they would support the union-backed measure. Even without the supporters, the citizens found people who could make the argument for the measure.

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