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Initiative process leaves individuals feeling cut out

A system hailed as giving power to the people doesn't work for those outside vast political organizations.

SALEM — David Smith wanted to create meaningful change.

The retired Eugene real estate appraiser of 45 years watched year after year as seniors in his community were forced from their homes, unable to keep up with climbing property tax rates.

He decided to seek a change in Oregon law to reduce seniors' property tax burden by 75 percent. He set out to get his idea put on the ballot in Oregon to let voters decide.

Smith filed his prospective petition with the state Elections Division in July, but he quickly encountered a system better suited to those with political power or a vast lobby behind them.

"The process was so onerous that it's almost impossible unless you have an entire fleet of people behind you working," Smith said.

The announcements of potential ballot measures have flowed steadily in recent weeks, but so far only three petitions have been cleared for the essential step of gathering 112,020 voter signatures to get a law change on the ballot in the 2020 general election. Petitioners need 149,360 signatures to amend the Oregon Constitution.

Among proposals languishing are firearm safety education, moving Oregon's primary elections to March, and legal protections for the right to use cannabis off the job.

The state lists 16 steps before a measure ever gets on a ballot. The long process starts when petitioners get the state's initial approval of a ballot measure and then gather 1,000 voter signatures to "sponsor" the measure. The state Justice Department then formally drafts the measure summary that would appear on a ballot and petitioners are then free to pursue getting signatures equal to 6% of voters who participated in the 2018 general election.

Smith shelved his plan before rounding up the first 1,000 signatures.

"I stopped at that point because I realized it was going to be impossible to achieve my goal," Smith said. "It made me feel like the power of the people has become zero."

He simply wanted to participate in the process to help his neighbors and community without needing the help of a large advocacy group.

"Individuals do not have that power. Power comes from a mass of people agreeing with you, and for individuals without any help, there's no way to make that work," he said.

He's dropped the initiative and instead is running for a House seat in Eugene.

In Oregon, initiatives face a long and winding road to the ballot. Most never make it.

Between 2010 and 2018, only one in three initiatives received approval from the Elections Division to circulate, according to agency data.

Of 314 petitions filed over the past decade, 23 gained the required signatures to qualify for the ballot. Of those, 10 were approved by voters.

With just over eight months left until the July 2, 2020, deadline to qualify for the general election ballot next fall, only three initiative petitions have submitted the 1,000 sponsor signatures and been cleared for regular signature gathering.

The first is a measure called "Get Big Money Out of Oregon Elections III," a proposed constitutional amendment to allow laws that regulate contributions and expenditures made to influence elections. The measure "Tolls Need Voter Approval" is a proposed constitutional amendment requiring voter approval for certain road tolls.

"Oregon Psilocybin Services Act" would allow the manufacture, delivery, administration of psilocybin.

Elections Division data shows that prospective initiatives are lagging slightly behind where initiative petitions typically are in the process at this point.

In 2018, only 10 of 45 proposed initiatives were approved to circulate for signature gathering. On average, backers of those petitions had at least nine months to gather signatures after receiving their certified ballot title from the attorney general, and some less considering they were appealed to the Supreme Court.

In the 2020 cycle, the toll roads measure was cleared to circulate last December. The initiative is backed by Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, and Julie Parrish, former state representative from West Linn.

According to Parrish, volunteers gathered signatures at county fairs and public events across Oregon this summer. So far, she said, they haven't had to do any paid signature gathering which speaks to the volunteer pool available to them to get this initiative off the ground.

Parrish believes that if they're able get the 149,360 signatures required, voters will approve the constitutional amendment.

"People are already paying through the nose for transportation in this state," Parrish said. "It's an issue that 70 percent of Oregonians think is a bad idea. This isn't a partisan issue. It's a checkbook issue."

Some petitioners are using the prospect of a ballot measure to create leverage with state legislators to make changes. A handful of proposed initiatives aren't even necessarily seeking to make the ballot at this point. Petitioners hope to pressure legislators into taking action during the 2020 legislative session in February.

One such measure is a measure promoted by State of Safety Action, a Portland-based gun safety advocacy group, to require Oregonians to secure their firearms. The group recently submitted 1,928 sponsor signatures and hosted a press conference to spur legislators to act on their suggestion of imposing fines for those don't safely secure guns or who don't report lost or stolen firearms within 24 hours.

The initiative is being called the "Cindy Yuille and Steve Forsyth Act," invoking the names of the two victims who died in December 2012 shooting at Clackamas Town Center Mall. Petitioners say they will push for the measure if legislators don't act.

"Senseless tragedies that our friends and neighbors in our communities are experiencing on a daily basis due to violence should not be our way of life," said state Rep. Janeen Sollman, one of the petition's backers. "As legislators, our job is to represent our communities, to promote safety and well-being and to create positive change. When outside forces get in the way and legislators can't quite get that bill across the finish line, Oregonians step up, like they're doing in this initiative."

That's a similar approach being taken by those supporting tighter restrictions on carbon emissions in Oregon. That was a hotly-contested issue in the 2019 Legislature that ultimately died.

Renew Oregon, a climate action group, and chief petitioners from across Oregon are proposing a three-measure package that would reduce greenhouse gas pollution 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and make Oregon100 percent carbon-free by 2050. They would also require all electricity used in Oregon to be from carbon-free sources by 2045.

All three initiatives aim to pressure lawmakers into passing cap and trade policy which failed to gain a foothold due to a walkout by Senate Republicans during the 2019 session.

"Our legislative process collapsed and failed this year. Oregonians and our kids can't afford to wait," said Tera Hurst, Renew Oregon's executive director. "There is massive support around the state for climate protection. If legislators walk away again with no climate action, we are ready to go directly to the voters and we will win."