Oregon's Changing Constitution

Advertisements run by Measure 50 opponents, namely tobacco companies, are quick to note that the ballot measure puts a cigarette tax in the Oregon Constitution. However, the Oregonian reports that complicated constitutional amendments are nothing new in Oregon:

In ominous TV commercials and mailings unleashed across Oregon this fall, opponents of Measure 50 argue voters shouldn't sully the state constitution by chiseling in a specific tax.

Indeed, it does seem odd to add an 85-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes to Oregon's 150-year-old founding document.

Or is it?

This is Oregon, where direct representation rules. And where voters have tinkered with the constitution 240 times since they voted back in 1902 to adopt an initiative system that made it easier to do just that.

Today, the document has come to contain a hodgepodge of detailed directives and entitlements that the framers in their handwritten simplicity never imagined.

Specific policies are already embedded in the Constitution:

Voters have legalized state-run gambling in the constitution, enshrined the right to a kicker tax refund and imposed strict limits on property tax increases. The document also specifies that prison inmates must work full time, that alcohol can be served by the glass and how gas tax money must be spent.

"I guess sacred is in the eyes of the beholder," says Dan Meek, who has spearheaded initiatives on campaign finance and public utilities. He's not involved in the Measure 50 campaign.

"I see it as a document that should reflect the will of the people, and it has been amended hundreds of times."

But the document also reflects values specific to the day, including language governing corporations and shareholders. The original document prohibited "free Negroes" from moving to Oregon, a provision that was repealed by voters in 1926.

A requirement that the secretary of state live in Salem is gone. References to the state's "white" population, "free Negroes" and "mulattoes" were finally taken out in 2002. However, the penalty for people who fight in a duel -- they're ineligible to serve in public office -- stands.

Read the rest. Discuss.

  • (Show?)

    Well at least our state Constitution would keep Zell "Pistols at Dawn" Miller out of Oregon politics should he ever relocate here form Georgia.

  • Eric J. (unverified)

    And because it is such a hodgepodge of cluttering garbage, we desperately need a Constitutional Convention to clean it up. If we don't, it will turn into just a glorified paragraph of the ORS - doing nothing more than trump administrative rule and make lives of Oregonians more difficult than it really is.

  • djk (unverified)

    No need for a constitutional convention; the legislature could get rid of all the clutter at once with a constitutional revision. 2/3 vote of both houses, and then a majority vote by the people.

  • Mick (unverified)

    Excellent reasoning. Our Constitution is cluttered up so it won't hurt to clutter it up more.

  • paul g. (unverified)

    This does create a dilemma for those of us who oppose, in principle, constant mucking around with the Oregon Constitution.

    Why can't / couldn't the legislature simply pass Measure 50 as a normal piece of legislation?

  • James X. (unverified)

    Paul, they tried. Republicans blocked it.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    No need for a constitutional convention; the legislature could get rid of all the clutter at once with a constitutional revision.

    The "legislture" = politicians and you want them to clean up the Constitution. Who messed it up in the first place? A constitutional convention composed of reasonably independent, non-partisan members grounded in the appropriate fields followed by a referendum to the people would have the best hope for success. Unfortunately, if recent history is any guide, the politicians and their supporters would in time get around to ignoring as much of it as they could get away with and just use the parts that suit them. Most national representatives in Congress ignored the U.S. Constitution five years ago with the support of about 75% of the people and got us into this war on Iraq.

  • djk (unverified)

    Seriously: we don't need a constitutional convention. We need bipartisan agreement IN PRINCIPLE to clean up the constitution. We need the legislature to appoint a blue-ribbon panel of constitutional experts charged with the job of making recommendations: turn certain provisions of the constitution into statutes, where appropriate; move some parts of the constitution around (there's stuff in the "Bill of Rights" that's doesn't belong there), but DON'T MAKE SUBSTANTIVE CHANGES (like adding or removing protected rights, changing the structure of the legislature, that sort of thing).

    And then when the legislature convenes, try to implement the bill in a referral to the people. I'm satisfied that the "2/3rd of both houses" requirement should keep any particular party from using the process as cover to push their own agenda.

    The one NECESSARY new provision is to require a 3/5ths majority vote to amend the constitution, just to prevent future tampering by a 50%+1 majority. 3/5th won't keep bad idea out of the constitution, but it will at least require something closer to a consensus. Two consecutive 3/5th votes two years apart would be better; it gives a chance for cooler heads to prevail.

  • Bob Vandiver (unverified)

    Just last night I got what I believe was a push poll that slyly built up to questions about whether I was aware that measure 50 would change the constitution.

    Vote for it!

    Bob the V in South Salem

  • (Show?)

    James X,

    I understand, but I'm not sure that is a completely satisfying answer. Essentially what you are saying is that if a legislative solution fails, we'll opt for a constitutional amendment?

    Progressives have criticized conservatives in the past for employing the initiative/referendum route when they could not succeed in the legislature. Why isn't this precisely the same thing?

    I have to admit that I am ambivalent at this stage. one of the more convincing arguments, to me, was put forth in another thread. Suppose we (rightly) pass comprehensive health care reform at the national level. Now we're stuck with this in the Oregon Constitution. Do we really want to legislative policy solutions like this constitutionally.

    I don't know. I was pretty sure how I'd vote a week ago. now I'm getting less certain. it's not the RJ Reynolds ads-I see those for what they are. It's the postings here.

  • (Show?)

    Paul -- Essentially what you are saying is that if a legislative solution fails, we'll opt for a constitutional amendment?

    It's more complex than that.

    There were plenty of votes to pass a tobacco tax for children's health care. But because of a stupid quirk in Oregon's law, it takes 36 votes to make a statutory change, but only 31 votes to submit a constitutional amendment.

    You see, it takes 36 votes to pass a "bill" for raising revenue, but a Constitutional amendment isn't a "bill", it's a "resolution".

    Why does that stupid quirk exist? Because of a parliamentary procedure ruling by Senate President Gordon Smith, interpreting an earlier ballot measure by (I think) Bill Sizemore. Since that time, legislative counsel has stuck with that ruling.

    Even stupider, there are a total of 37 legislators that voted in favor of the statutory change - but never more than 35 at one time. The House Republicans kept playing "Lucy with the football", yanking the ball despite promises for a clean vote.

    Want to blame someone for putting this in the Constitution? Blame the House Republicans.

    Meanwhile, several hundred thousand Oregon children are waiting for health care.

    I'm not willing to make 'em wait any longer. Not to protect the "sanctity" of a Constitution that includes a prohibition on dueling, appropriates lottery money and gas tax revenues, and says I can drink booze by the glass.

  • (Show?)

    The transactional effect of the Measure 50 vote is pretty straightforward: vote no, no coverage for uninsured kids. Vote yes, 100,000 more kids get access to health care.

    I have a theory that if you looked at cross-tabs for single-issue constitutional amendment "no" voters, less than one-percent of those folks have likely ever actually read the thing (but I'm sure Paul is in that one-percent). Dueling, self-service gas, state government printing procedure... I've got to think that kids' health insurance is at least equally important.

    Coming one week after Bush vetoed the SCHIP expansion, voting against Measure 50 because of the long-term prospect of universal coverage at the federal level doesn't make a lot of sense to me. But before voting no for this reason, I'd encourage Paul to take a look at the health care plans of the presidential candidates.

    Here's Barack Obama's plan. Both top two Democratic candidates -- and the Republicans are not really running on univeral coverage -- have plans that build on what the states are doing. Obama's plan explicitly gives states flexibility, so there doesn't seem to be a lot of danger of making Measure 50 obsolete.

    It's an interesting academic debate whether we should have a "spring cleaning" of sorts for our Constitution, but in the meantime, let's not miss our best chance to take a big step forward on health care.

  • (Show?)

    If the leg. can refer M50 as a constitutional amendment on a simple majority vote, why can't they refer a repeal of it or other elements the same way?

  • djk (unverified)

    The legislature could refer a repeal of any single amendment by a simple majority vote. They'd need 2/3rds of both houses to do a mass cleanup. Potentially, a "clean-up" could involve a couple of dozen individual "repeal" questions on a single special election ballot.

    If M50 passes, the legislature certainly could codify it as a statute next session and then ask us to vote the amendment out of the constitution as "no longer needed". I don't think they will, but they could.

    I'm well aware that the vast majority of voters don't really understand the difference between the constitution and statutes -- or if they do, they simply don't care. Otherwise, a lot of stuff in there would never have been passed in the first place. I think a majority of legislators are the same way. So I have no real hope there will be any progress cleaning up this mess in the foreseeable future.

  • djk (unverified)

    That last post should have said "They'd need 2/3rds of both houses to do a mass cleanup as a single vote."

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    the "sanctity" of a Constitution that includes a prohibition on dueling

    No prohibition, you just cannot serve in the legislature if you've been in a duel. Speaking of duels, it is critically important that we protect the right of legislators to carry concealed weapons into the state capitol. Concealed weapons: they're not just for schoolteachers any more.

  • paul g (unverified)

    Kari, I suspected that there would be some sort of provision like that. You and Charlie are pulling me back in the fold ...

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