By: Mateusz Perkowski

A ballot initiative that would overturn Oregon laws pre-empting local control over GMOs and pesticides was found by state attorneys to make overly broad changes to the Oregon Constitution.

A proposed ballot initiative to overturn statewide pre-emption laws for biotech crops and pesticides in Oregon has been dealt a legal setback.

Under the “Right to Local, Community Self-Government” initiative, counties and cities would be immune from Oregon’s pre-emption statutes, allowing them to regulate issues currently under the state’s sole jurisdiction.

Proponents have gathered more than 1,000 signatures in favor of the initiative, which was enough to begin the ballot title drafting process for the 2016 general election.

However, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office recently rejected the initiative for making overly broad revisions to the Oregon Constitution.

Specifically, the initiative would “effectuate fundamental constitutional changes to the structure and division of powers of state and local governments” and alter the power of the legislative and executive branches, according to state attorneys. Such a sweeping “revision” can’t be accomplished with a ballot initiative, they said.

A revision of the Oregon Constitution must instead be approved by two-thirds of both legislative chambers before a referral to voters, said Paul Diller, a law professor at Willamette University.

The initiative was also rejected for making multiple changes to the Oregon Constitution that weren’t closely related.

Proponents now have the choice of challenging those findings in court or attempting to write a new initiative that overcomes the hurdles identified by the state’s attorneys.

Mary Geddry, a chief petitioner for the initiative, said that proponents haven’t yet decided on a course of action but disagree with the government’s conclusions.

“It does not mean everybody is just going to roll over,” she said. “We believe it’s a worthy cause and we’ll try to get it done one way or another.”

Apart from genetically modified organisms and pesticides, the initiative would allow local governments to regulate “fracking” in oil and gas developments, coal exports and other activities that affect air and water quality, Geddry said.

“We’re talking about fundamental rights,” she said. “Communities don’t have the right to say ‘no’ under the current system.”

Oregonians for Food and Shelter, an agribusiness group, worries that the ballot initiative would preclude any statewide regulations, resulting in a patchwork of rules from county to county, said Scott Dahlman, its policy director.

“Anything that keeps it off the ballot, we are excited to see,” he said.

The Secretary of State’s determination is a “substantial” reversal for initiative proponents, since they now face the prospect of a legal battle or an overhaul of their proposal, Dahlman said.

“Either way, they’ve got a significant process ahead of them,” he said.

Revising the initiative to pass constitutional muster would be very difficult, Dahlman said. “It looks like a pretty fatal blow to this effort.”

Diller of Willamette University said there’s little case law dealing with how far-reaching constitutional changes must be to qualify as a “revision,” so the proponents face an uncertain legal landscape.

“It’s a bit of an open question whether they might achieve success by appealing this decision to the courts,” he said.

Even if proponents do ultimately obtain approval to circulate their petition for signatures, the initiative still faces a steep obstacle to getting on the ballot.

Constitutional measures such as this initiative must receive more than 117,500 valid signatures, about one-third more than initiatives that alter Oregon statutes.