At the risk of sounding like a teacher, I would give the legislature about a B grade this session.
Last Thursday at about 2:45 p.m. — a reasonable hour by past standards — the session closed to the normal huzzahs for a job well done. To be sure, the legislature can take credit for accomplishments in the areas of education, health care and redistricting.
In a House marked by split control for the first time in Oregon's history, it would be normal to count the accomplishments; each side was equally in charge, so each would get the credit or the debit.
In the Senate, Republicans, who were in the minority by one vote, came across as more critical, especially in regard to their session-long complaint that there was not enough focus on job creation.
Here are a few perceptions about the legislative session beyond the education, health care and redistricting subjects:
- Any reasonable observers would have to give solid credit to the unusual trio of co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee — unusual because they represented about as wide a spectrum on the political scale as could be imagined. Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin; Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland; and Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, were able to bridge their obvious philosophical differences — Devlin and Buckley from the left and Richardson from the right. No doubt there were vigorous debates in back rooms, but most of the time, in committee and on the House floor, the three came across as even-handed and studious.
- The same could be said of the two co-speakers, Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Rep. Bruce Hanna, Roseburg. Their rural Oregon roots, along with even-tempered personalities, enabled them to lead an effort to avoid the acrimony in the House that was characteristic of the 2009 session.
- The even split in the House and close D control in the Senate (16 to 14) made it possible this session to find middle ground on a variety of issues -- middle ground that would have been impossible in 2009.
- Everyone knew going in that balancing the budget would be the big issue this session. It was, but legislators also left themselves a lot of work to do in the next regular session, which for the first official time, will occur in the even-numbered year, 2012. A number of agency budgets — long-term care for senior citizens, for instance — cannot be maintained for the second year of the biennium without an infusion of new dollars or, in the alternative, major cuts.
- This situation was compounded by how the legislature treated hospital and health insurance premium taxes. This time, these taxes were just another source of general funds. In the past, proceeds from the taxes were directed to specific health care-related purposes in concert with the hospitals that paid them and the insurers that collected them. If federal authority for the taxes goes away, along with the federal matching funds they garner under Medicaid, there will more huge holes in the state budget.
- Some observers wondered if there would be the usual "Christmas tree" bill at the of the session, the piece of legislation that allows legislators with connections to put ornaments on the tree. Some call it bringing home the bacon. Well, this time the Christmas tree may have been a Christmas twig, but Ways and Means leaders found room for ornaments for investments in places like Roseburg, Pendleton, Milton-Freewater, Klamath Falls, Gresham and in every city with a higher education institution.
- In the hours after adjournment, House Democrats made a change in leadership by deposing Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, and installing Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland. It is too early to tell for sure what the change means. Since serving as House Speaker in the 2009 session, Hunt had been a bit of lightning rod for criticism, though he survived this session as Democrat leader in the split House. Kotek has demonstrated an ability to listen and deal with lobbyists on all sides, even while maintaining her urban roots in Portland.
With all of this, some observers could contend that legislators could have earned an A this time. For me, it's a B instead because of the failure to deal with PERS funding issues, as well as the intentional use of health care taxes for general purposes.
Footnote: The author, CFM partner Dave Fiskum has been a private sector lobbyist in Salem for more than 20 years. Among others, he represents health care clients which are involved in the health care issues.