Leave the initiative and referendum process alone


For decades, Oregon’s initiative and referendum process have provided citizens the opportunity to challenge or determine the future of a law passed by their elected lawmakers.

When legislators pass a bill, the people have a window of time in which they can collect a set amount of signatures to refer the law to a vote. Then the citizens, not the politicians, decide if the law is a good fit or not.

In recent years, it seems that process has come under increasing fire, and one current development is particularly troubling.

During the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 833, which would allow undocumented residents to obtain a driver’s card in place of a driver’s license. The card would only grant driving privileges, and not serve as legal identification, so long as the applicant meet the requirements imposed on other drivers.

After the bill passed, citizens collected enough signatures to put the law to a vote, and a subsequent measure will appear on the 2014 ballot. So far so good, right? Another bill is referred to the people just like many others. Not quite.

Turns out that the Legislature, for the first time in Oregon history, has decided to step in and passed a law, House Bill 4054, that will enable them to choose the ballot title. Most ballot titles are determined by the Oregon Attorney General, with the intent of making the title as balanced and accurate as possible. If anyone disputes the given title, they can challenge it in the nonpartisan Oregon Supreme Court and justices will decide what is suitable.

This ballot measure title was in fact disputed and the Supreme Court is currently deciding what the title should be. Apparently that is not good enough for some lawmakers. Before the court has decided, the lawmakers have decided they want to name the ballot measure.

Bill supporters have not publicly given a reason for this unprecedented move, but it doesn’t really matter what their reason is. This sets an unsettling precedent that takes more power away from the citizenry, a group already struggling to have their say in the laws the state passes.

Changing something as simple ballot title may seem innocuous enough, but Sen. Doug Whitsett correctly pointed out that many voters base their decision on the ballot title alone. If that title is slanted in any way, voters could unknowingly cast their vote with one expectation and get an entirely different result.

This is the latest, and most troubling incident, in a growing trend. Many bills are introduced with an hour’s notice of a public hearing in Salem. How many citizens outside of the Willamette Valley can make those hearings, if any? Furthermore, the Legislature is passing a majority of its bills with an emergency clause attached, meaning it takes effect upon passage. Consequently, that window of opportunity to refer the law to a vote is gone. By the way, HB 4054 has an emergency clause attached.

Citizens should retain their power in the legislative process. Yes, they elected these representatives, but that doesn’t mean they will always do the will of the people. In those situations, the citizens need a way to fight back.