Three of Oregon's most influential political actors — Gov. Kate Brown, Nike Corp. and Our Oregon, which represents public employee unions — played political chess in advance of last week's deadline for initiative petitions. The endgame keeps one measure from appearing on the ballot in November, and will shape the campaigns against two others. It's all perfectly legal, but ordinary voters can be excused for feeling a bit queasy.
Our Oregon was on its way toward placing an initiative on the ballot that would have required disclosure of tax and other information by publicly held companies, including Nike. In a deal brokered by Brown, Our Oregon agreed to shelve that proposal in exchange for Nike's agreement to oppose two other measures — one that would require a legislative supermajority to reduce or eliminate state tax breaks, and a second that would prohibit sales taxes on groceries. Nike's opposition comes with a $100,000 donation to a committee formed to fight the two initiatives.
Political horse-trading is nothing new, but it's rare to see such a clear example of the practice played out in public. Nike opposes forced disclosure of its finances. Our Oregon opposes limiting the Legislature's options for scaling back tax breaks or raising business taxes. So they made a deal.
Perhaps it's old-fashioned to regard the initiative process as a tool that belongs to the people. Special interests long ago learned to use the process for their own purposes; employing paid signature-gatherers to bring to the voters proposals that have little grass-roots support and blocking grass-roots efforts with legal delaying tactics are now standard practice. In this instance, one initiative proposal became a bargaining chip that was traded away to bring a big donor aboard the campaign against two others.
A higher degree of sophistication is now required of voters. As always, they need to evaluate the merits of ballot measures. But they must also understand the politics behind what's on the ballot — and what's not.