Democracy vs. republic
Here we go again. Every time a controversial ballot measure is passed, somebody comes out and opines that Oregon's initiative and referendum system gives too much power to the people. Yesterday it was a bright student from Portland, currently at Columbia University, who wrote in the Tribune.
Oregon's system, which dates back to 1902, is one of the nation's more liberal in terms of the power it reserves to the voting population at large. Governments at all levels hate it, and opponents of the initiative have succeeded in having some important restrictions placed on it. For example, a measure making a constitutional change must be limited to a single subject (or something to that effect). And now, canvassers are not supposed to be paid by the signature any more.
More fundamentally, opponents of the process often say that the average voter isn't as smart as the average legislator, and that we ought to leave the important choices to those who are better informed. Government should not be one big town hall meeting, they say, but instead a republic whose decisions are made by the wisest among us, who are chosen to lead.
With a part-time, high-turnover legislature made up entirely of average citizens, it's hard to buy that argument. Moreover, with the current information technology boom, the overall trend may be that the general public is getting smarter, not dumber.
This time around, frustrated proponents of Measure 30 complain that the income tax surcharge was carefully crafted in a bi-partisan compromise only after weeks and weeks of haggling, and that the hard-earned deal should have been left alone by the voters. Putting aside the fact that 3 out of 5 voters disagreed with the package, I believe there's a flaw in that argument.
When the legislature meets, the members are not ignorant of the referendum process. To the contrary, the potential for a ballot measure to second-guess any legislation sits in the Capitol like a 6,000-pound gorilla. The Republican types who voted for the income tax boost did so knowing that it would be placed on the ballot, in late January, when it would almost certainly fail. So they voted yes and went home, and the end result has turned out to be a rejection of the tax increase, which is now allowing them to smirk. (And with Lars Larson carping at them for their yes votes on this, they'll be quick to point out that they didn't really think it would survive at the polls.)
If the likelihood of the ballot measure's defeat hadn't been in the air last summer, this particular tax increase deal probably would not have been struck, and in fact, there may not have been any deal at all.
I'm all for debating whether the initiative/referendum system needs reform. Although I suspect that the majority of Oregon voters like it in its current form, it's worth a debate. But until the process is changed, no legislation is final. And members of the House and Senate will no doubt continue to bear that in mind as they ponder how long to stay in Salem every session trying futilely to solve the impossible problem of the Two Oregons.