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Controversy dogs at least one initiative as three await confirmation of signatures

If three pending initiatives qualify for a statewide vote Nov. 4, their advocates will have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — and for one initiative, $1 million — in their efforts to collect the required signatures.

Now, the initiatives are trying to do what the Legislature would not: change Oregon law on primary elections, marijuana use and womens’ rights. In the past few years, lawmakers declined to change primary elections to advance the top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation. They did not refer measures to legalize recreational use of marijuana by adults, or write a guarantee of women’s rights into the Oregon Constitution. They also preempted local regulation, including a labeling requirement, for genetically modified organisms.

But Oregon voters may get their chance to vote on all of those issues, including a state version of the Equal Rights Amendment that has already stirred controversy even as it qualified for the ballot.

Signatures for the three other measures were filed before Thursday’s deadline, and state elections officials began Monday to verify them through random sampling. Officials have until Aug. 2 to confirm the required 87,213 signatures and assign numbers to the measures.

“Now, virtually all the time, it’s an end run around the Legislature,” says Jim Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University, particularly by well-funded groups that have the means to advance their causes through statewide elections.

Money isn’t everything. Advocates of breaking Oregon’s monopoly on state liquor sales raised $1.6 million — $650,000 from Safeway and almost $400,000 from Fred Meyer — and spent $1.4 million, the most this two-year cycle. But they dropped their plans, at least for Nov. 4, when their preferred measure failed to gain timely clearance for signature gathering.

But money is something. Advocates of barring public funding of abortions fell far short of the signatures they needed to qualify a constitutional amendment for the ballot. They spent just $38,000, relying solely on volunteer efforts to gather 95,000 signatures, short of the 116,284 minimum.

“In the coming weeks, we’ll regroup and make a decision on what’s next,” the committee posted in a website message.

Voters will decide two other measures, one referred by the Legislature and the other referred by petitioners opposed to a law passed in 2013.

Reliance on money

Based on financial reports filed by last week’s deadline with the secretary of state, the cost of the preliminary work for each ballot measure ranged between $500,000 and $1 million.

For the Oregon ERA and the top-two primary, a relative handful of Oregon donors put up most of the money.

For the Oregon ERA, the primary donors were Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo, one of its chief sponsors, and her husband, Portland lawyer John DiLorenzo, although much of that support came in the form of loans and noncash contributions such as materials and services.

For the top-two primary, which is modeled on what is done in California and Washington, the main donors were Jim Kelly, founder of Rejuvenation Inc. in Portland and now an Eastern Oregon rancher, and Brett Wilcox, a Portland business executive. Two other prominent business leaders, a health insurer and the Oregon Business Association’s political committee also contributed.

Voters rejected a similar proposal in 2008, and lawmakers heard but did not advance it in 2011.

For marijuana legalization and GMO labeling advocates, donors came mainly from outside Oregon.

The current marijuana proposal would leave its regulation to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, similar to the successful ballot initiatives in Colorado and Washington in 2012.

Oregon voters that same year rejected a different legalization measure, whose advocates spent little on the campaign. Lawmakers considered writing their own ballot measure in 2013 and this year, but it never advanced beyond committees.

Out-of-state help

Unlike a pair of competing marijuana legalization measures, the current proposal attracted support money from national groups such as Drug Policy Action and big names such as Peter Lewis, the late chairman of Progressive Insurance. His sons steered another $250,000 to the cause.

Advocates spent a total of $600,000, four times the amount of the rival effort led by Paul Stanford of Portland. He abandoned it when it became clear his signatures would fall far short of the minimum — and he encountered labor problems with signature gatherers.

For GMO labeling advocates, they also relied on out-of-state sources to fund their signature-gathering efforts, whose cost topped $1 million. Chief among them were makers of soaps and other products.

But advocates said they are banking on political momentum from voter approval in two conservative counties of southern Oregon in the May 20 primary — and their own grassroots networks — to offset an expected onslaught of money and advertising from opponents.

Oregon voters rejected a similar measure in 2002. Voters in California and Washington also rejected measures in 2012 and 2013, but only after campaign spending of $46 million and $22 million, the latter a campaign record for Washington.

ERA controversy

Meanwhile, the Oregon ERA proposal came under fire almost as soon as its advocates submitted their signatures. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon issued a statement in opposition, similar to its stance against a similar but not identical ballot measure that voters rejected in 1994. ACLU had given some indications in 2013, when lawmakers considered it, that it might remain neutral.

ACLU argued that a measure barring discrimination based on gender might be interpreted to restrict equal rights for other groups.

“If we adopt instead a piecemeal approach to protecting the rights of targeted classes, the rights of those with the least political clout and financial resources — and therefore the most vulnerable — would be more likely to suffer under the shifting winds of public opinion in times of stress,” says a statement by Becky Straus, ACLU Oregon legislative director. “Our greatest strength in the struggle to advance fundamental civil rights and civil liberties is our unity.”

But in response, Leanne DiLorenzo, a chief sponsor of the Oregon ERA, released a letter written by former Chief Justice Paul De Muniz and signed by three other retired justices, Michael Gillette, William Riggs and George Van Hoomissen.

“The text ... itself provides that nothing in it will diminish the rights of any group under any provision of the Oregon Constitution,” the letter says.

The justices argued that while the Supreme Court interpreted the Oregon Constitution in 1982 as prohibiting discrimination based on gender, that case law could change in the future — but a constitutional guarantee can be changed only by the voters.

Twenty-two other states have similar constitutional guarantees, the letter says, “and not one of the ‘concerns’ raised by the ACLU has ever come to pass in those states.”

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