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Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as Oregon Teachers' Association Sues Ballot-Initiative Group

Oregon Teachers' Association Sues Ballot-Initiative Group

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The Oregon Education Association has filed a $2.25 million racketeering lawsuit against a powerful taxpayers' group that has clashed with the union for years over a succession of state ballot initiatives.

James K. Sager

James K. Sager, the president of the OEA, claimed that an extensive investigation by his organization had uncovered enough evidence to show that Oregon Taxpayers United was engaged in continuous fraudulent activities that harmed the union and its members.

A former employee of the conservative advocacy group, which sponsored tax and education-related ballot initiatives in the November elections, is facing criminal charges for allegedly forging signatures on petitions both for a 1998 measure and another that failed this past November.

Mr. Sager said that Oregon Taxpayers United was "making a mockery of the initiative system and the constitutional process."

But Becky Miller, the executive assistant of the taxpayers' group, countered that the state affiliate of the National Education Association was trying to retaliate against the group for proposing initiatives that would link teachers' salary increases and job security to student performance and would limit the union's power by ending payroll deductions for political purposes. She said Taxpayers United, which filed a motion to dismiss the case, does not condone or conduct any type of election fraud.

"We really think OEA is trying to tie up our time and money because they know we are short on both," Ms. Miller said.

In a complaint filed last month in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, the union seeks repayment of $750,000 it used for legal and campaign expenses to defeat two Oregon Taxpayers United ballot measures: a 2000 initiative that would have barred payroll deductions for political activities and another that same year that would have prohibited the use of public money to help collect funds used for political efforts. The state racketeering law allows for plaintiffs to triple their actual monetary damages, which raises the stakes in the union's suit to $2.25 million.

The union alleges that former OTU employee Kelli Highley was involved in preparing or submitting forged petitions in connection with those initiatives. Ms. Highley faces criminal charges in connection with signatures for a 1998 initiative that would have barred payroll deductions for political activities and a measure this past November that would have allowed Oregonians to deduct federal income taxes from their state tax returns.

Measure Thrown Out

Meanwhile, in another legal battle between Oregon Taxpayers United and the teachers' union, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned an OEA-sponsored ballot measure that had been approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1998.

The court found that Measure 62, which protected union payroll deductions, violated a state supreme court decision that prohibits a single ballot measure from amending the state constitution in several unrelated ways.

The union launched that measure to counter an initiative by Taxpayers United that would have barred unions from having access to those salary deductions, a measure that failed that same year.

Oregon Taxpayers United and the American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the union measure in court, but now the taxpayers' group is mulling a possible appeal of the ruling. Ms. Miller of Taxpayers United said the court's ruling in the case went beyond what the group wanted. She said the decision would make it more difficult to craft initiatives to amend the constitution.

"We waged a war at the ballot box," she said. "We're just beginning to go to war with the union in the courts."

The teachers' union will not appeal the court's decision, Mr. Sager said. Oregon voters have made it clear on two occasions that they would not support halting union access to payroll deductions, he said, so the union sees no need to propose another measure to safeguard that arrangement. Still, the union has no plans to end its involvement in Oregon's heavily used citizen-initiative process. ("Unions Pull Out Stops for Elections," Nov. 1, 2000.)

"We want to make sure that the initiative process remains open to citizens, but at the same time, we want to close the loopholes that allow people to abuse the system," Mr. Sager said.

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 24

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