A man who rules by referendum

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.

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.

"We believe that taxes are a moral issue - that when taxes are too high, families are hurt," says Sizemore. "We simply believe in letting people keep more of the fruits of their labor."

Sizemore, always attuned to political discontent, usually begins an offensive by translating dissatisfaction into simple - opponents would say "simplistic" - ballot language. This year, his efforts are winning enough support that they have his adversaries on the run. A coalition of unions, charitable groups, businesses, and elected officials (Republicans as well as Democrats) has banded together to fight Sizemore's ballot measures. Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), who walloped Sizemore when the conservative antitax activist ran as the Republican candidate for governor two years ago, agreed to debate him on statewide television.

One issue of contention is Measure 91, which would lift the $3,000 cap on deducting federal income taxes from state taxable income. "Double taxation is wrong, plain and simple," says Sizemore. "No one should be forced to pay income taxes on their income taxes."

If passed, according to opponents, this would cost the state $1 billion a year in revenues, give corporations a $150 million tax break, and mainly benefit the wealthy.

"This one goes too far," says Oregon Senate President Brady Adams, a Republican. "It's the only time I've ever gone with the governor on something." Even though it would save them a big chunk of their state tax bill, Intel and Nike - two of the state's largest businesses - are also fighting the measure. Their reasoning, according to company officials, is that cutting state revenues would harm public education and therefore the ability to recruit qualified employees.

Some of Sizemore's ballot measures are ahead in the polls; others are behind. But in a way, that doesn't matter to him, says Mr. Lunch. The campaign strategy is "many torpedoes in the water," says the political scientist - coming at the goal of reducing the size of government from different directions.

"To put a measure on the ballot is relatively cheap - $200,000, maybe less," he says. "But it takes $1 million or $2 million to defeat one of these things."

Back in the early 1900s, Oregon was one of the first states to allow citizens to put proposed laws on the ballot. Since then, Oregonians have considered over 300 initiatives - more than any other state.

This is part of the independent political spirit here. "Oregonians like self-government," says Sizemore. "They like the ability to override the Legislature."

So far, the long list of ballot measures hasn't prompted an outcry from overburdened voters. Efforts to make it harder to qualify such measures have failed.

Still, it looks as if a sort of backlash is brewing against overuse of the initiative mechanism. In Eugene, Ore., two retired men - tongues planted firmly in cheeks - are gathering signatures for a measure that would bar ice cream truck drivers from playing that annoying music for more than five minutes in any 30-minute period.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.