The Oregon state Legislature is playing politics -- and playing it unfairly -- with taxpayer money.
The Democrat-controlled Legislature allocated $135,000 to fund a team of 10 observers to monitor the activities of signature-gatherers trying to derail a $733 million tax hike passed by lawmakers this year.
This is the first time a team has been hired to do random spot checks of petition campaigns.
State election investigators usually respond on a case-by-case basis to complaints about problems in initiative or referendum campaigns. That system, while surely not foolproof, has worked well and there is no reason to change it.
Except, of course, if the goal is to derail a petition drive.
Pat McCormick, spokesman for Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, the group behind the petition, sees mischief in the Legislature's motive for funding the monitors. McCormick told The Associated Press the state's newly hired investigators have approached petitioners, "asking them questions, slowing them down and taking up time that we are paying these people to collect signatures."
To this point, the special team of observers has found no problems in the way the paid and volunteer petition gatherers have been rounding up signatures for the anti-tax effort.
Geoff Sugerman, a spokesman for Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt, counters that hiring the observers is part of a long-term effort by the state to gain better oversight of initiatives and referendums in general to avoid potential fraud or abuse.
Fine, then why didn't lawmakers work with the Secretary of State's Office, which oversees elections, to fund a comprehensive program to fight fraud and abuse. Instead, as was reported by Brad Cain of The Associated Press, the $135,000 to pay for the 10 observers was tucked into a final catchall budget measure that passed in the closing hours of the 2009 legislative session.
The Legislature does have a lot of flexibility in the way it does the people's business (lawmakers, after all, write the rules). But, in this case, it appears lawmakers went too far. It is the role of legislators to set policy and write the budget. Lawmakers are not to micromanage offices such as the Secretary of State's Office. It is particularly inappropriate to use state offices for political purposes.