O regon voters established Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature last November while returning Democratic Gov. Kate Brown to office. The mega-majority party promptly responded by saying, in effect, “Thanks, voters. Now beat it.”
This year’s legislative session, which concluded one week ago, was a protracted expression of contempt for the ballot-casting masses.
Where to begin?
The so-called Equal Access to Roads Act, otherwise known as House Bill 2015, is as good a place as any. Driven by overwhelming Democratic support, the legislation, which awaits Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, would give people who have immigrated to the United States illegally an opportunity to obtain a driver’s license.
I happen to think this is good policy, as people who are here in violation of immigration law are likely to drive anyway. Giving them a strong incentive to learn the rules of the road will improve safety for everyone.
More importantly, though, Oregonians think it’s a terrible idea to give driver’s licenses to those who flout immigration law. They said so clearly in November 2014, when an overwhelming 66 percent of voters opposed a similar proposal. Measure 88, the precursor of HB 2015, won support in only one of Oregon’s 36 counties: Multnomah.
If lawmakers believed Oregonians had changed their minds during the five years since that shellacking, they could have sent the measure back to the ballot. Instead, they just pretended that vote had never happened.
As an affront to voters, however, HB 2015 pales in comparison to the majority party’s pursuit of a new business tax.
Less than three years ago, in November 2016, 59 percent voters opposed a measure that would have established an enormous gross receipts tax. Though the tax would have been assessed on businesses rather than individuals, much of it would have been passed along to consumers, making Measure 97 a hidden sales tax.
Rather than steering clear of a tax so clearly opposed by their constituents, Democratic legislators rammed through a modified version this session, House Bill 3427. And having done that, they methodically undermined efforts to bring Measure 97, The Sequel before the very voters who opposed the original.
To that end, they went after what are known as e-sheets, or electronic sheets. Registered voters who’d like to help force a public vote on a new law they don’t like — a business tax, say — can sign a petition presented by a signature-gatherer. Alternatively, they can download and sign an e-sheet, a DIY option that’s particularly useful to shut-ins and people in rural areas.
For a time, voters could even sign e-sheets distributed within newsletters. The state’s largest teacher union, the Oregon Education Association, distributed just such a document in the spring 2016 edition of Today’s OEA. The e-sheet allowed recipients of the magazine to support the initiative that became Measure 97.
Enter Senate Bill 761. As introduced, the bill would have prohibited the mass distribution of e-sheets, thereby preventing opponents of Oregon’s hidden sales tax from using the very tool employed by supporters of the tax’s predecessor. An amendment proposed in May would have been even more restrictive, barring the use of e-sheets entirely until 2023. Take that, rural voters.
Following a widespread outcry, legislative Democrats scaled back their voter-suppression effort. The version of SB 761 sent to the governor’s desk effectively prohibits the Today’s OEA distribution model, but allows voters to use e-sheets they print themselves or ask to be printed on their behalf.
Having limited voter participation in this fashion, Democratic legislators further hedged their bets by hijacking the process by which ballot titles and explanatory statements are drafted. Normally, the drafting of such language is handled in relatively neutral fashion by the attorney general’s office. Senate Bill 116, which squeaked through the Legislature shortly before adjournment, provides that a legislative committee (dominated, naturally, by the majority party) will write ballot language for any measures from the 2019 session referred to the ballot.
So, if Democrats’ voter-suppression efforts don’t prevail, they’ll do what they can to write favorable ballot language for a business tax voters have said already they don’t want.
In a way, you really can’t blame Democrats for abusing their mandate. What’s the point of having a supermajority if you’re not prepared to press your advantage? Were power in Salem distributed as unequally in Republicans’ favor, you can be sure they’d behave just as cynically.
But knowing that isn’t likely to comfort voters who supported Democrats under the assumption that they’d pursue policies most Oregonians desire rather than those they know most Oregonians oppose.
The solution to this problem, greater balance in Salem, is obvious. But voters have to make it happen. If they continue to hand overwhelming majorities to a single party, they have no business complaining when that party continues to treat them with contempt.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.