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Voters likely to get a shot at pot, GMOs

Array of measures promise to crowd November ballot


Oregon voters will not decide this fall whether to allow marriages by same-sex couples or retail liquor sales by private stores.

But with less than a month to go before the filing deadline of July 3, voters are likely to face an array of other ballot measures in the Nov. 4 election.

They range from legalizing recreational use of marijuana by adults and requiring labeling of food with genetically modified organisms to barring public funds for abortions and approving a state version of the Equal Rights Amendment for women.

Two measures already are on the ballot, one referred by the Legislature and the other referred by petitioners opposed to a law passed in 2013.

Oregon and California run neck and neck among the 24 states allowing some form of ballot initiatives, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute based at the University of Southern California. According to their secretaries of state, Oregon has passed 122 of 359 initiatives on the ballot since 1902; California, 122 of 360 since 1912.

“Both states have been using the ballot measure process for a century, so it’s been part of their political culture,” says Jim Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University.

“It started as a vehicle for the people to have a say. But now, virtually all the time, it’s an end run around the Legislature,” particularly by well-funded groups that can gather signatures and advertise their causes statewide.

In Oregon, lawmakers tightened restrictions on paid signature-gatherers after the heyday of Bill Sizemore, a critic of taxes and public employee unions who was known in the 1990s as Oregon’s “initiative king.” Voters in 2002 banned per-signature payments for petition circulators, and lawmakers imposed new requirements for paid circulators and petition procedures.

Initiative supporters from both ends of the political spectrum have been critical.

“The so-called ‘good government’ types didn’t like ... what Bill Sizemore did,” says Greg Wasson of the Committee for Petition Rights in Salem. “So they haven’t said ‘boo’ as the Legislature, the attorney general and the secretary of state continue their drive to abolish in all but name direct democracy.”

But Moore says voters have shown they are the best check on the process. Their approval rate for new laws in Oregon is slightly higher, and for constitutional changes a little lower, than the one-in-three average for all initiatives.

“The voters still support the initiative system,” he says. “But they want to make sure it’s not being abused.”

Below are brief updates on some of the measures in active circulation. A more detailed story on the GMO controversy will appear Thursday in Sustainable Life.

MARIJUANA

Advocates of legalizing the drug for recreational use hope the third time is the charm.

Voters rejected a 2010 measure to license dispensaries for medical marijuana — lawmakers approved a different proposal in 2013 — and they also rejected a 2012 measure to allow both homegrown cultivation and state licensing for commercial sales. While voters in Washington and Colorado passed different legalization plans, the Oregon defeat stung advocates, who won a double victory in 1998 when Oregon allowed medical marijuana and scrapped a law to reimpose criminal penalties for possession.

Voters may decide between competing measures.

One pair of measures, sponsored by Paul Stanford of Portland, would remove all criminal penalties — except those affecting children and public safety — and set up a new state commission to regulate cultivation and sale of marijuana.

A similar pair failed to qualify two years ago, when officials determined that petitions contained a high proportion of invalid signatures. A spokesman for the Campaign for Restoration and Regulation of Hemp, which sponsored a different 2012 measure, said it will not rely on third-party circulators.

“We are assured that people who come to this office under our employ are well trained by us, and the signatures they bring in are almost always valid,” Leo Townsell says. “Our verification rate is going to be very high.”

A different measure, sponsored by Anthony Johnson of Portland, would put the Oregon Liquor Control Commission in charge of regulating and taxing cultivation of marijuana and hemp.

“We can coexist peacefully” with the constitutional amendment proposed by Stanford to do away with most criminal penalties, Johnson says — but not Stanford’s measure to create a new commission.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS

Oregon lawmakers ratified the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution twice in the 1970s — it failed to win the required three-fourths of the states — and a 1982 Oregon Supreme Court decision is considered the state’s functional equivalent of women’s rights.

Still, Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo of Portland thinks it’s time to write a ban on gender discrimination into the Oregon Constitution.

Although she got a number of lawmakers to sponsor it, the 2013 Legislature failed to advance it. So she turned to the initiative. The campaign already has submitted about 40,000 more signatures than the minimum required to qualify it for the ballot. Officials have not yet informed her of its status.

“We dream we will qualify as fast as possible,” she says. “I do not know that we will, but our goal is to find out where we are at.”

Voters rejected a version in 1996, when opponents questioned whether it might preclude other constitutional rights. But no group has opposed the current proposal.

This measure drew attention April 8, when Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Portland that it might rekindle a national discussion. Clinton did not endorse it, but DiLorenzo said she got a handwritten note of encouragement from the former first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and potential 2016 presidential candidate.

ABORTION

Oregon has no restrictions on abortions, but opponents want to put the question of public funding to voters again.

“We are trying to drum up awareness,” says Jeff Jimerson of Albany, one of the sponsors of a proposed ban. “A lot of people do not know they are paying for abortions, so a big part of what we are doing is educating the public.”

They failed to qualify a measure two years ago, but started earlier this time. Jimerson said about 66,000 signatures have been collected, all of them by volunteer petitioners.

“We are at the mercy of timing by the people who are turning in petitions to us,” he says. “So we are waiting for the sheets to come back.”

He said the group has checked signatures against a state database to avert duplication, which is penalized during the verification process.

Voters have rejected measures to ban abortions (1990), ban public funding (1978, 1986) or require notice to parents before minors undergo abortions. (1990, 2006).

PRIMARY ELECTION

Voters may face competing measures to change how candidates are nominated in direct primaries, which Oregon originated in 1908. Under the current system, only voters registered with major parties can participate in choosing candidates, so the growing number of voters not affiliated with the parties are shut out.

One measure, similar to one voters rejected in 2008, would let voters choose among all candidates, the top two finishers advancing to the general election. California and Washington now use this system.

The other measure is a hybrid that combines it with elements of instant-runoff voting, which San Francisco used to elect its mayor in 2011.

Under a “unified primary,” voters can choose to support more than one candidate for an office, although their votes are not weighted. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election.

Its sponsor is Mark Frohnmayer of Eugene, a software engineer and son of the former University of Oregon president and state attorney general. He said he is relying on the Internet — a website video and Facebook page — to spread the word.

“I like the basic idea of letting everybody participate,” he says. “But I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of vote-splitting that happens in an open primary, because when you add candidates, the problem gets worse.”

INTRUDERS

A law dating back to 1971 already protects homeowners from criminal liability if they use force against intruders. But a measure proposes to extend it to civil lawsuits.

“Our issue is with the perpetrator,” says former state Rep. Kevin Mannix of Salem, one of its sponsors. “Prosecutors do not prosecute people who defend themselves against intruders. This is better protection for homeowners and renters.”

But Mannix says the campaign has relied mainly on volunteers, who have gathered an estimated 20,000 signatures. The measure is the only active one of four launched for 2014 by Common Sense for Oregon, which Mannix helped found.



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