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Initiative Activists Already Gathering Signatures For 2008 Ballot

Gay rights activists have filed a complaint against the group trying to force votes on two bills approved by the Oregon legislature this year.

Gay rights opponents are collecting signatures on two referenda.  The deadline to collect 55,000 valid signatures is later this month.  John Hummel with the group Basic Rights Oregon says backers of the referendum campaign are claiming their donors can write off their contributions on their tax forms.

John Hummel: "They are attempting to repeal our basic fairness laws that were enacted by the legislature and the governor.  And they're using unfair and illegal tactics to do so."

But the spokeswoman for the referendum campaign — former Republican state Senator Marylin Shannon — called the complaint unwarranted.  She said her campaign has already stopped claiming that campaign contributors can get a tax credit.

If these two measures qualify, they would appear on this November's ballot.  But it is the ballot of next November — in 2008 — that's drawing the focus of most initiative activists these days.

The deadline to collect those signatures isn't until next summer.  But as Colin Fogarty reports, some familiar faces are getting an earlier start on their initiative campaigns than ever before.

If ballot initiatives were babies, Bill Sizemore could be signing that old Loretta Lynne song.

Loretta Lynne: "One needs a cookie and one needs a changing and one's on the way."

Sizemore has already turned in signatures for three ballot measures.  Another batch of signatures is on the way next week.  And Sizemore is collecting signatures for three more after that.

Why seven measures? Sizemore says, why not?

Bill Sizemore: "I have a lot of ideas of good things I'd like to do.  I kind of consider it my role in Oregon politics to give Oregonians lots of choices about what kind of state they want."

Sizemore's choices for 2008 include a cut in the state income tax and phasing out property taxes for anyone older than 65.

Another measure would prohibit schools from teaching students in a language other than English for more than two years.

Sizemore would change legislative rules, keep teachers salaries from being based on their seniority, and ban automatic payroll deductions for public sector unions.

Kevin Looper heads Our Oregon — a coalition of labor groups and progressive organizations gearing up to fight initiatives sponsored by Sizemore and other conservative activists.

Kevin Looper: "The bad guys in my view — folks who represent the regressive end of the political spectrum, as opposed to the progressive politics that I represent — are now literally huddle together like drunks around a trash can fire, all trying to figure out ways that they can go out and advance these initiatives."

Sizemore is turning in signatures a full year before the deadline — something that's unprecedented in the modern initiative cycle.  But he's not alone. 

Last week, Republican activist Kevin Mannix turned in 163,000 signatures for a measure that would divert 15 per cent of lottery profits to crime fighting efforts. He says he was surprised how early he finished collecting signatures.

Kevin Mannix:  "I wanted to lay this out, have this as part of the agenda for 2008.  And we frankly were successful much more quickly than expected.  We had a tremendous turn out of people willing to sign these petitions, so we've accomplished our goal quite early."

Mannix also acknowledges another reason for turning in the signatures early: Money.  It's a lot cheaper to hire paid signature collectors now than it would be next year.

Bill Sizemore says waiting until next summer to hire circulators would cost two or three times what it does now.

Bill Sizemore: "You try to hire plumbers when everybody's pipes are breaking, you find you pay a lot because they are in high demand.  But petition circulators are not really in high demand a year before or two years before the deadline so that is when we started.  And it was really easy for us to find circulators."

But Kevin Looper — whose group plans to campaign against all of the initiatives sponsored by Sizemore and Mannix — suspects there's another reason for the early signature turn ins.

Earlier this year, Oregon lawmakers approved a series of new requirements on signature collectors.  Petitioners have to register with the state and wear ID badges.  Those new requirements take effect in January.  So Looper believes that initiative sponsors are trying to beat those deadlines.

Kevin Looper: "They're afraid and I think rightfully so that after January its going to be a lot harder for them to come up with ways to make the ballot, other than actually…God forbid…collecting signatures from real voters."

Looper says he has evidence  of fraud and forgeries and plans to file a complaint against initiative sponsors.  Those are allegations Bill Sizemore denies.  But in 2002, a Multnomah County jury found that Bill Sizemore had qualified initiatives with forged signatures and illegal accounting maneuvers.

That case remains on appeal.  In fact, the Oregon Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Sizemore's case next week.

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