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The Perverted Initiative Process 

Oregonians have a long and proud tradition of being ahead of the curve when it comes to social and political reforms. One of the most

Oregonians have a long and proud tradition of being ahead of the curve when it comes to social and political reforms. One of the most important of those reforms was the creation of the initiative process back in 1902. The idea was that if the legislature was too stupid, cowardly or corrupt to pass laws that the people wanted, the people could do it themselves through the ballot box. It was a good idea at the time, and it was quickly copied by more than 20 other states. But over the past century - and especially in the last 20 years or so - the initiative process has been perverted into something its progressive creators would hardly recognize.

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After a fight that lasted decades, the Oregon Legislature in 2007 finally passed a law allowing gay and lesbian couples to enjoy many of the same rights that married couples of opposite sexes take for granted. Religious fundamentalists, spearheaded by an out-of-state group, tried to put an initiative on the ballot to repeal that law.

These self-appointed guardians of "Christian" moral purity didn't manage to collect enough valid signatures, but that didn't stop them. They went to court claiming the secretary of state's office had improperly rejected signatures. Pending a decision on that claim, a judge issued an order temporarily blocking implementation of the civil union law.

And then there's Bill Sizemore, the Incredible One-Man Initiative Machine.

During a seven-year period, from 1993 to 2000, Sizemore was responsible for getting a dozen initiatives - mostly anti-tax and anti-union measures - on Oregon ballots. He was sidelined for a while with legal troubles, including racketeering convictions for questionable signature-gathering practices and shuffling money around in dubious ways. But this year Sizemore is back with six more anti-tax, anti-union and anti-government initiatives that he hopes to put on the ballot.

Like the anti-gay rights campaign, Sizemore's efforts have benefited greatly from out-of-state money and expertise. The same is true of other initiative campaigns, both pro and con, such as Measure 37 (passed in 2004 with the help of national property-rights groups) and Measure 50 (defeated in 2007 with the help of huge doses of tobacco company cash).

The initiative process started out as a way for the people to express their will. In the age of big-money TV advertising, it too often has become a way for out-of-state interests with wads of cash to distort and thwart the people's will in favor of advancing their own narrow agenda.

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court's regrettable ruling that spending money is a form of protected free speech, it seems doubtful that Oregon could ever cap spending on initiative campaigns. The same goes for efforts to bar or restrict out-of-state contributions.

But at least Oregonians can be aware of the sleazy games that are being played, and take advantage of the campaign finance reporting laws to know who's playing them. And we can vent our frustration at the whole shabby business by giving it THE BOOT.

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