Oregon's lawmaking body becomes a target of public

Author Subject: Oregon's lawmaking body becomes a target of public
Injured Posted At 14:53:46 05/03/2000
With the down-home bluntness that actress Julia Roberts mimics on the nation's movie screens, Erin Brockovich
stares into the camera. It would be a crime, she says, if Oregon voters "let the Legislature and the politicians
become our judge and jury."

That's the crux of a new TV ad that trial lawyers think could help
them defeat Measure 81, which is aimed at limiting jury awards in
civil lawsuits. Brockovich, the California legal investigator profiled in the
hit film starring Roberts, is using her celebrity status to bash a group of decided noncelebrities that has become a
handy punching bag in ballot measure campaigns: the Oregon Legislature.

The strategy could play a big role in the outcome of two of the most controversial measures in the May 16 mail
election. If successful, it could add more tarnish to the image of an institution that's already the worse for wear.

"We're faceless, we're nameless, we're the conglomeration of everything that makes people's lives miserable," said
Rep. Max Williams, R-Tigard, his voice a mixture of sarcasm and resignation.

"I even joke about us, and it's a great laugh line," he said. "But in the long run, it probably doesn't help the republic."
Whatever the long-term fate of the republic, Americans have never been shy about dissing their politicians.
It seems more true than ever in this year's ballot measure campaigns.

The Brockovich ad is sponsored by a group whose name says it all: the "Trust Juries Not Politicians" coalition.
Financed largely by trial lawyers, the group wants to stop the Legislature from being able to reinstate limits on the
amount of noneconomic damages that juries can award in civil lawsuits.

Oregon's previous cap of $500,000 was struck down by the state Supreme Court last year, and the Legislature -- at the
behest of the (insurance lobby), among others -- approved a measure asking voters to once again let lawmakers set limits.

Among the measure's complexities, opponents zoomed in on the idea that voters shouldn't trust the Legislature. Lisa
Grove-Donovan, a Portland pollster working on the anti-Measure 81 campaign, said voters are naturally
inclined to put their faith elsewhere.

"People can't say the person in Salem (in the Legislature)is like them," she said. "But juries are more like them."

The Legislature is also taking hits in the campaign over Measure 79, which would increase by 50 percent the
number of signatures needed to qualify a constitutional initiative for the ballot.

Gregg Clapper, a Portland political consultant working with opponents, has three radio ads that describe Measure 79
as a power grab by the inside-the-Capitol crowd.

One ad, featuring Ralph Nader, the consumer activist and Green Party presidential candidate, says "these politicians
and the big-buck lobbyists want more power for themselves and less power for regular people."

Another ad portrays a pair of lobbyists from the timber and pesticide industries "lurking in the halls of the Capitol" as
they persuade legislators to put Measure 79 on the ballot.

Distortion charged Williams, the Tigard legislator who played a key role in
bringing both measures to the ballot, said critics are distorting the Legislature's handiwork.

Although several lobbying groups did support making it harder to put constitutional initiatives on the ballot, it's a
reform that has long been backed by many good-government advocates, he said. Measure 81 only
restores the power the Legislature long had, Williams argued.

The other big piece of legislative work on the primary ballot-- the proposed 5-cent increase in the gas tax -- has been
abandoned by supporters after polls showed it would fail.

If legislators lose on most of their measures, it wouldn't be an unusual result. Over the last 10 years, voters have
ratified just under half of the 45 referrals from the Legislature.

But the record is worse if you consider measures that attracted real opposition.
Of those, voters passed only nine out of 30. In contrast, voters approved nearly 40 percent of
the 56 citizen initiatives on the ballot during the same time.
Often the Legislature itself was the chief issue. For example, voters in 1994 narrowly approved an initiative
allowing doctor-assisted suicide. When lawmakers put the same issue back on the 1997 ballot, 60 percent said they
wanted to keep the law.

"Voters said, 'Don't come back and tell us we were wrong,'" said Geoff Sugarman, a Silverton political consultant who
worked with supporters of assisted suicide.

A Bend family featured in another ad opposing Measure 81.

Anne Kirkwood, who was horribly burned in a 1994 truck
crash and later reached a big settlement with General
Motors, appears in a TV spot with her daughter, Annette,
who says putting limits on lawsuits is "not a job for a politician."

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