Accurate Expectations for Short Session

Short sessions have short deadlines to move legislation. Governor Kitzhaber may face a challenge in moving a group of major bills through the legislature in such a tight time frame this February.Many Oregon legislators have lived through the different pace of the "experiments" with two short legislative sessions — one in 2008 and one in 2010. A number of new legislators and — perhaps more important — Governor Kitzhaber have not had the special experience.

That raises questions about proper expectations for the short session, which comes amid a lingering recession that has resulted in declining state tax revenue projections and just before the campaign season formally launches that will determine which party controls the House and Senate. The special session is scheduled to end no later than March 5, the day before the filing deadline for the May primary and November general elections.  

There are at least five major issues on the special session platter. Four of them are there because of initiatives by the governor as he seeks to re-make state government. The issues are:

         *  The need to balance the state budget in the face of a continuing recession that is sapping general fund resources for K-12, higher education, law enforcement, prisons and social services. The prospect of spending cuts is viewed as so dire that SEIU and AARP have bought advertising to decry further reductions in home, health and long-term care.

         *  Taking the next steps in the governor's education investment strategy, which will consolidate education management and funding priorities from kindergarten through graduate school under his leadership and an appointed education czar.

         *  Taking the next steps in the governor's strategy to reform what he calls "early learning issues" as they pertain to children from ages 0 to 5. Some of the changes are going down hard with Oregon counties, which fear losing their role in children and families issues in their local communities.

         *  Taking the next steps in the governor's strategy to reform programs in what has been his pet policy issue for years — health care. In the case of one of the most controversial proposals — a requirement to save $239 million on low-income health care under Medicaid in the second year of the biennium (with a corresponding loss of $400 million in federal matching funds) — a consultant for the Oregon Health Authority suggested this week that the savings amount is too high, too soon. The consultant said long-term savings will accrue as health care providers find new ways to work together.

On that score, major health care providers in the Portland metropolitan area – Providence, Legacy, Kaiser and managed care organizations – are indicating that they may find a way to create one "Coordinated Care Organization" for the metro area. If that happens, it would be viewed as a major step forward, though it would also raise questions from legislators about how one organization could assume responsibility for health care for the huge metro area population.

         *  Creating a Health Insurance Exchange for Oregon, which would be essentially a shopping center for health insurance.  The business plan for the Exchange, which is a cornerstone of the Kitzhaber and Obama administration health care reforms, must be approved by legislators in February.

Beyond these issues, legislators have also been given permission to introduce two bills each and legislative committees five bills each. So there will be a host of bills in the hopper, though many of them won't see the light of day beyond being printed.

Look at it this way. To pass, a bill must be considered and approved in committee during the first week of the session. It must then pass on the floor the second week so it could follow the same path in the opposite chamber in the final two weeks of the session. All it takes is a political sneeze for a bill to die.

That's why only legislation that, as legislators like to say, has been pre-cooked before the session, has much chance to pass in a short session.

One legislator suggested Kitzhaber did well in the first regular session of his third term as governor, but may be underestimating the reality of prodding action on major, politically controversial issues in the compressed timetable of a short session.

On the other hand, top legislative leaders have been through previous experimental short sessions and have the skill to navigate measures through the shortened time line. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Keizer, is the acknowledged architect of the annual session movement.

Given the recession, major structural issues and looming political campaigns, don't worry too much about some of the bills that are introduced passing into law. Many may be more for show than go.

When all is said and done, the governor's best ally as he seeks to reform state government could well be the state's financial difficulties.  In a crunch, legislators may choose the governor's reforms that could save money over time as a way to avoid cutting programs now.