MY POLITICAL COMPROMISE
June 7, 2006
As I stood there shaking hands with folks as they arrived at the community center for what promised to be a lively debate among the Republican candidates for governor, I noticed one of my opponents, a former chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, handing out newspapers. What caught my eye was the banner headline, which jumped off the page and hit me like a ton of bricks.
Emblazoned across the top of the front page in bold, block letters were the words, “SIZEMORE SELLS OUT.” I didn’t need to read any further to know what the story was about and that the truth was quite the opposite, but it hurt deeply to see such an accusation printed there for all the world to see.
The newspaper was one of those conservative, alternative tabloids that pops up from time to time among conservative true believers, so in reality not many would actually see it. However, many of those who would see that headline and read the story would be true-blue conservatives, whom I would count as friends.
This all happened a decade ago, but there is an important lesson behind the story of my “selling out,” and I wonder now that I have never before told it publicly. The lesson is this: Sometimes it is the details of the behind the scenes, inside story that determine whether a particular course of action is wise or foolish; whether it is purely motivated or an act of corruption.
There are times when those faced with a decision in the real world of politics will decide on a course of action that on the surface appears to be a despicable compromise or even an outright sell-out, when in fact, if all the details were known, they are doing what is best for the very cause embraced by those condemning them for their compromise.
In 1996, I wrote and placed on the ballot a historic measure that did several things. First, it reduced property taxes statewide by approximately $1.1 billion per biennium. Second, it capped future increases in assessed value at not more than three percent per year, regardless of how much the real market value of the property increased. Third, it created what is called in Oregon the Double Majority, which annuls property tax increases enacted in an election in which there is less than a 50 percent voter turn-out.
The measure also tightened several loopholes that were left undone by previous property tax limitations, such as restricting the definition of “capital improvements,” which governments were using to get around tax limitations that were already in place. It also stopped governments from up-zoning properties against the owner’s will and then increasing the tax on the property to raise more money for government coffers or force the owner to sell to a developer, because the new property tax bill was more than the owner could afford.
In spite of a contentious campaign and heavy opposition from the public employee unions, the measure I wrote was approved by voters in November of 1996. After a short respite, the state legislature convened two months later and began holding committee hearings on legislation implementing the measure, which of necessity had been written as a constitutional amendment.
I have written before about the difficult time politicians often have understanding a measure that tells them to do something they really don’t want to do, so I will skip some of the details of what went on in committee, but the bottom line was this: State legislators wanted to rewrite my measure in their own words, but were afraid to do so, because they did not want to be seen as attempting to overturn the expressed will of the people.
In their hesitance, I saw an opportunity to preserve a victory for Oregon taxpayers that might otherwise be lost. I believed that by making minor concessions now, I could lock in forever the gains we had made at the ballot box.
You see, there was a rumor circulating among political insiders that the Oregon Supreme Court was looking for an opportunity to invoke a new standard for ballot measures, one that would be created specifically to allow them to throw out any ballot measure they didn’t like. Rumor was this new standard would involve some kind of tightening of the single subject rule for constitutional amendments.
I felt my measure might be vulnerable under such a rule, because we had accomplished so much in one measure and this might afford the court just the opportunity it wanted. Bear in mind that Measure 47, at the time I drafted it, was well within the historical standard for the existing single subject rule. However, if the court was going to impose some kind of new, yet undefined rule, my measure might be vulnerable and could be nullified by what was quickly becoming a very activist Oregon Supreme Court.
It was with this in mind that I approached the chairman of the House and Senate Joint Revenue Committee and told him that I had heard that his committee was discussing rewriting my measure, but were hesitant to do so. He confirmed that fact and the fact that they were not willing to undertake such an endeavor without the public cooperation of the sponsor of the original measure, which was I.
I then made him the an offer: One of the problems the committee was having was with the effect of the tax cuts on some rural hospitals, which were heavily subsidized by property tax dollars. The committee was also struggling with the effect of the measure on some of the sparsely populated Easter Oregon counties, which were already on the verge of bankruptcy and might be pushed over the edge by my property tax measure.
I told him I would publicly cooperate in a rewrite and not object to a $200 million reduction in the amount of taxpayer savings to help the rural hospitals and struggling counties, if he would promise on behalf of his committee that the rewrite would leave in place the other $867 million in taxpayer savings, the three percent cap on future increases in assessed value, the Double Majority (which they hated), and some of the other more minor taxpayer protections that the measure contained.
Oh yes, and one other thing: I told him that I didn’t want this rewrite to be a work of just the Republicans, who controlled both houses of the legislature at the time. I told him that I didn’t want Republicans blamed for trying to overturn the will of the people. To gain my support, I informed his that he would have to insure that there would be at least a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate, when the new measure was referred to the voters. He agreed, and throughout the process remained true to his word.
Bear in mind that the measure I had written was only two pages long and easy to understand. The rewrite on the other hand was a small book. The language was so complicated that we spent a small fortune having a top notch lawyer wade through the entire document to insure that it really did what we had all agreed it would do.
(We had only one major bone of contention with the language of the rewrite and that was regarding Urban Renewal taxes. Before the rewrite was voted on, we insisted on and received a letter from Legislative Counsel assuring us that the new language was no less restrictive on Urban Renewal taxation that my measure or previous law had been. This later turned out to not be entirely true.)
The rewrite eventually was passed out of the House and Senate with a two-thirds vote as promised. Shortly thereafter, the measure was approved by voters and is now the controlling property tax law for the state of Oregon. That all happened a decade ago and since that time the measure has saved taxpayers of Oregon several billion dollars. Today, a typical residential property owner in Oregon would pay $1,000 to $2,000 a year more in property taxes, if this law was not on the books.
Was my compromise a wise course of action or was it a sell out, as that conservative newspaper declared in its banner headline? All I can say about my decision is this: I had no motivation for doing what I did other than protecting my measure from a hostile court that could have snatched the entire victory out of our hands. I thought it better to give up ten percent of what we had gained and put the rest beyond the reach of the liberal judges who occupied every seat on the Oregon Supreme Court.
I never mentioned this publicly at the time, but I was really after something quite different from what legislators thought. There was nothing wrong with the way my measure was written. It didn’t need to be redrafted. All I really cared about was the two-thirds vote.
By obtaining a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the state legislature, when the rewrite was referred to the voters, we made the measure invulnerable to any kind of expanded single subject rule the court might devise. Under the Oregon Constitution, you can rewrite the entire Constitution, if the measure is referred to the people by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate. In other words, with a two-thirds vote referral, there is no single subject rule.
My fear of the courts proved to be well founded. Shortly after voter approval of the legislative rewrite, the Oregon Supreme Court did in fact create a new rule for constitutional amendments. The new rule was created out of thin air, and you can read about it in my column entitled, “Judges Who Break the Law, Judges Who Steal.” Since that time, the court has used its new rule to overturn the will of the people and throw out seven or eight voter-approved constitutional amendments, some of which were of major consequence.
I have no doubt in my mind but that the court would have used my property tax limitation measure to set their new policy. In that event, taxpayers would have lost those billions of dollars in savings and today there would be no Double Majority, a protection which continues to save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle.
Yes, I compromised. In supporting the legislative rewrite, I gave up $200 million in taxpayer savings. In doing so, however, I insured that we would be able to keep all of the rest.
I recall a conversation I had back then with one of my larger donors, who has since passed on. I told him what I was proposing with the rewrite and asked his opinion. His response went something like this, “Bill, if you can walk away from the table with half of what we won and insure that those liberal judges can’t take it away, do it.” We walked away with more like 90 percent and I have never regretted my decision.
Yes, political figures do sell out. They do so for all kind of ulterior motivations, often betraying the very causes they claim to support. Perhaps that is why it hurt so much to have some of my conservative friends, a few of whom have not spoken to me since, condemn my actions as selling out. Time, however, has proven my decision to be a wise one.
The lesson to be learned from my story is this: It is not always wise to judge a political figure’s actions without first knowing the inside story. Sometimes and on some issues there is simply no room for compromise. Sometimes, however, compromise is the only way to move the ball down the field towards your goal.
A purist never compromises. He stands his ground. Every time he comes to the plate, he swings for the fence. Every pass he throws is a hopeless “Hail Mary” to the end zone. However, in the give and take world of politics I have learned that a purist usually gets to feel very righteous about accomplishing very little.
Sometimes you have to compromise. Sometimes you simply take what you can get, brush off some of the dust and sweat, wade back into the battle and try to win some more tomorrow.
© 2006 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved
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Bill Sizemore is a registered Independent who
works as executive director of the Oregon Taxpayers Union, a statewide
taxpayer organization. Bill was the Republican candidate for governor
in 1998. He and his wife Cindy have four children, ages eight to thirteen,
and live on 36 acres in Beavercreek, just southeast of Oregon City, Oregon.
The new rule was created out of thin air, and you can read about it in my column entitled, “Judges Who Break the Law, Judges Who Steal.” Since that time, the court has used its new rule to overturn the will of the people and throw out seven or eight voter-approved constitutional amendments...