Politics

Bill Sizemore: Initiative King

Two years ago, Bill Sizemore got drubbed in Oregon's gubernatorial election. Running as a Republican against the incumbent Democrat, John Kitzhaber, he didn't even attract a third of the vote.
by | October 2000
 

Two years ago, Bill Sizemore got drubbed in Oregon's gubernatorial election. Running as a Republican against the incumbent Democrat, John Kitzhaber, he didn't even attract a third of the vote. It seemed the political equivalent of the old vaudeville hook, yanking him rudely from the stage.

And it might have done that, had the candidate been anyone but Sizemore and the state any but Oregon. As it happened, the rejected nominee just took his defeat as encouragement to refocus his energies, and it's fair to say that he's succeeded: When voters go to the polls next month, they will confront no fewer than six initiatives drafted by Sizemore, plus two more placed on the ballot with his help. Just to put things in perspective, this makes him responsible for more than a tenth of all statewide ballot initiatives in the entire country this fall. In Oregon itself, not even Kitzhaber is having as much influence on the election dialogue.

More than perhaps anyone else in America--including California's late, legendary Howard Jarvis, the author of tax-cutting Proposition 13--the 49-year-old Sizemore has made the initiative process his route to political influence. Oregon pioneered direct democracy in 1904, and since then, its residents have voted on more initiatives than any other state. It is a place where an ambitious ballot entrepreneur can have an impact, and that is precisely what Sizemore has become.

In the early 1990s, backed by a group of wealthy and conservative businessmen, he formed a group known as Oregon Taxpayers United, to develop tax-reduction proposals and get them on the ballot. Then he created his own signature-gathering company, which, by circulating multiple petitions early in the election cycle, has been able to drive its costs down. Not only does this put Sizemore at the head of a "vertically integrated" initiative enterprise, as the head of the state's AFL-CIO once put it, it means that he and the people backing him can affect the statewide conversation at bargain-basement prices.

Of the measures for which Sizemore is directly responsible this year, the most far-reaching is Measure 91, which would allow Oregonians-- individuals and businesses--to deduct their entire federal tax payments on their state income-tax returns. Measure 91 would cut the state's revenues by about $1 billion, making it by far the most significant tax-cutting initiative in Oregon history. Another Sizemore measure would require voter approval for most new or increased state taxes and fees.

If those two initiatives were all that Governor Kitzhaber and the state's moderate and liberal forces had to contend with this year, it would be enough. But Sizemore has managed to split his opposition. A measure to peg teacher pay to student performance is taking up the attention of the state's teachers' unions. And two other initiatives aimed directly at curbing the political activities of unions have eaten up the time and money of the state's labor movement.

This is crucial, because organized labor has provided most of the resources that have opposed Sizemore in the past. However, it has created an interesting political realignment. For the first time, corporations, fearful of what Measure 91 might do to education, have stepped in to fund the opposition to it.

Sizemore, though, is undaunted. "Our goal," he says, "is to make Oregon the lowest-taxed state in the union, with the highest-quality government services. To accomplish that goal, you have to weaken the power of those groups that want bigger, more expensive, less efficient government." To him, that not only includes the unions, it now includes business as well.

If only one of Sizemore's key measures is enacted into law, he'll likely declare victory. But even if none of them is, it won't discourage him. "From a realistic perspective, his howl is greater than his bite, in that he gets more on the ballot than he passes," says Roger Gray, a political consultant who has helped guide the opposition to Sizemore. "But were he to fail in all his measures, he won't feel at all deterred in bringing them up--or any others--in future elections."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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