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A man who rules by referendum

By Brad Knickerbocker Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 2000


One of the most politically powerful men in the Pacific Northwest works out of a small office with a staff of three and a modest budget. He's never been elected to anything, although he tried a few times - and got trounced. And he's opposed by just about every organized business and political interest in the state.

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Perhaps better than anyone in the US today, Bill Sizemore represents the "mad-as-heck-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore" face of politics.

Over the past decade, using Oregon's initiative process, he's had more impact on state taxing and spending - and therefore on what government can and cannot do here - than any other individual, including the governor.

Like Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, who 22 years ago launched a tax revolt in California via Proposition 13, Mr. Sizemore is a controversial figure who has his political opponents grinding their teeth. Even if his legislating-by- initiative approach has raised concerns about the ballooning number of ballot measures (and their potential effects), voters so far have not seen fit to cut back on this form of governing.

Of the 26 statewide ballot initiatives this year, Sizemore wrote six of the most controversial and potentially most challenging to the status quo.

Whether his group, Oregon Taxpayers United, represents the true grass roots, as he claims, is a matter of perception.

"In a certain sense, he's a hired hand," says William Lunch, a political scientist at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "Oregon Taxpayers United is really an organization that represents primarily a group of millionaires who would like to reduce the public sector and ... reap enormous economic advantages for themselves."

SIZEMORE counts 22,000 contributors to his cause, and his Web site trumpets his political prowess, noting that a labor leader once called him "the scariest new face in politics, because he kicked our [behinds]." A recent political cartoon in the state's largest newspaper shows a teacher listing the three branches of government as "Legislative," "Executive," and "Sizemore."

"Vilified as I am, all I do is give voters a lot of choice," says Sizemore.

Apparently, voters appreciate having a choice. Although they may not like Sizemore's style - he carries a 2-to-1 negative rating in public-opinion polls - his initiatives usually win considerable support, even those that don't pass.

Among those choices on the ballot this year: making federal taxes 100 percent deductible on state tax returns; giving voters the power to kill any new tax hikes or fee increases; basing teachers' pay on measurable improvements in student performance; stopping public employee unions from automatically deducting union dues from members' paychecks if those dues are used for political purposes; requiring the state to pay "just compensation" if it does anything to reduce the value of a citizen's property; and, just for good measure, forbidding the state Legislature from passing any law that would weaken the initiative process.

Since 1990, when the first of two property-tax limitation measures were passed here, communities have had to scramble to cover shortfalls in funding public schools - largely with state revenues approved by lawmakers through the budget process. Sizemore and other antitax activists see this as politicians' end run around property-tax cuts voters approved in 1990 and 1996.