When the word “parsing” starts showing up in newspaper headlines, you just know something has gone horribly awry. In this case, that something is Oregon’s Measure 37, which voters may modify next week when they weigh in on Measure 49.

Starting in 2000, with Measure 7, Oregon’s so-called “property rights” initiatives have unleashed perhaps the nastiest and most confusing series of election battles in Oregon’s history. (And that’s really saying something if you know Oregon politics.) For the last few months the debate over 49 has become a sort of bizarre monument to popular ballot measures: a dark gothic dread under-girding the swirling rococo flourishes of campaign rhetoric.

But at this late hour—and lacking the intestinal fortitude to descend into the fever swamps of Oregon’s electoral screaming match—it’s maybe worth reminding the state’s voters what happened at the ballot box in other states last year:

    • Each state neighboring Oregon considered their own Measure 37.
    • And in each state, voters were swamped with pro and con stories from Oregon’s experience with 37. So, what happened?
    • Nevada’s courts tossed the measure. California voters handed out a decisive “no.” Washington’s voters said “no” by nearly 20 points. And Idaho’s voters said “no” by almost 3 to 1.

    The lesson? Measure 37 and its spawn are simply radioactive to the public. That’s because, at bottom, regulatory takings laws are terrible, terrible public policy. They are fundamentally anti-democracy, and voters tend to see them that way.

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Oregon voters will see through the political bramble and support Measure 49. Whether they do or not, however, it is almost certain that the state’s property laws will once again be sorted out in courtrooms. And the state legislature will once again need to tinker with the laws.

    Sigh. I’m starting to think that maybe popular initiatives aren’t the best way to address complicated policy questions.