Next month, 24 randomly selected Oregon voters will gather at Western Oregon University in Monmouth to weigh the pros of cons of Measure 97, the controversial proposal for a gross-receipts tax on certain Oregon corporations.
Think of the group as an impartial grand jury of sorts: Members will hear presentations from proponents and opponents. They'll get to ask questions. At the conclusion of the review, scheduled for Aug. 18-21, the panel will produce a statement to give voters key facts about the measure and arguments for and against its passage.
The panel's report, one of the few impartial sources of information about the most important matter on Oregon's 2016 ballot, will be included in your state voter's guide.
It's all part of the Oregon Citizens' Initiative Review Commission, a uniquely Oregon creation that was launched in 2011. The commission is an innovative attempt to help cut through the noise and heat surrounding far-reaching and complicated ballot measures and provide voters with some badly needed light.
It's also a process that you likely haven't heard much about, in part because it's underfunded.
The Oregon Legislature established the Citizens' Initiative Review Commission in 2011. The state contracts with a Portland-area nonprofit called Healthy Democracy to help run the process.
Robin Teater of Healthy Democracy told me that the original idea was to review at least two ballot measures during each election cycle. (A fresh panel with new members is brought in for each review; panelists receive a daily stipend and their room and board costs are covered.)
Of course, these days, Oregon ballots usually have more than two important measures. In a better world, the commission would be able to set up a review for each important ballot measure.
But this year, because of financial constraints, only one review will be held.
The price tag for each review is about $65,000 in direct costs and another $40,000 or so in indirect costs and staff time.
Given the financial constraints, the state commission elected to do only one review this election cycle, and Measure 97, the "600-pound gorilla" of this election, in Teater's words, got the nod.
The review process has gotten rolling thanks in large part to donations from private sources. But those sources are drying up.
In the meantime, other states are beginning to notice Oregon's experiment with the review commission and are following suit, Teater noted: Arizona has launched a similar process, and Massachusetts is about to launch a pilot program. Arizona's project, which is being coordinated by the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at Arizona State University, is publicly funded. (Healthy Democracy is assisting with the efforts in those states; perhaps ironically, the measures to be considered in both Arizona and Massachusetts involve legalizing marijuana.)
One of the initial selling points for the Oregon project back in 2011 was that it would involve no public funding at all and, in fact, contributions from corporations and unions were barred.
And, again, in a better world, private funds still would be more than sufficient to fund the commission and its work. Or Healthy Democracy would have the resources to try to raise its public profile throughout Oregon to the point where it would be easier to attract additional donations.
We're not there yet. Maybe we won't get there.
But considering that millions of dollars are going to be spent in the battle over Measure 97, investing $100,000 or so to get a fresh and impartial read on such a complicated and important measure seems like an eminently reasonable investment.
And it's not as though Measure 97 will be the last complicated and important measure to go before voters: Oregon ballots typically are loaded with measures on major policy initiatives.
Teater puts it well: The citizens' review process, she said, is "pretty inexpensive. And the stakes are only rising."