Judging Oregon's First Annual Session

Senate President Peter Courtney was a leading proponent of annual sessions. Now maybe he should advocate for curbing the number of frivolous bills that get introduced, printed and tossed aside.Wolves. Guns. Trees. Bar pilots. Teen dating.

Before the recently completed legislative session in Salem, you would not have expected those subjects to make the short list of issues to be considered during the four-week sojourn at the Capitol. But they all came up.

To many observers, the list of not-so-important, complicated and controversial issues made for a confusing session. Every legislator had the freedom to introduce two bills each and almost all used it, meaning there were 180 bills in the hopper at the start of the session. Each interim committee had authority to introduce five bills each, which is how you get to nearly 300 bills.

Governor Kitzhaber, for his first official experience with a short, regular legislative session, came to the Capitol with the next steps on four ambitious reform proposals — health care transformation, education, early learning and health care exchange. Those four measures would tax any legislative session, regardless of length

Officials who pushed for the annual session would have called out three issues that should occupy legislators for those four weeks — rebalancing the sometimes-volatile state budget, handling emergencies (fires, floods, other natural disasters) and fixing unintended problems in bills passed the previous session.

To veteran Salem observers, those issue priorities made sense, especially adjusting the budget at a time when tax revenues dipped more than expected, caseloads for some state agencies grew and federal revenue vaporized.  

In the immediate aftermath of adjournment Monday night at 9 p.m., legislators emphasized their accomplishments, including a last-minute deal on foreclosure policy, approval of the budget-balancing bills and money for hard-hit Vernonia schools.  Some Republicans worried that the legislature, for all of its agreements, had not done enough to help the private sector create jobs, and one, Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Clackamas, even voted against the "sine die" adjournment resolution as a protest. 

Peter Wong of the Statesman Journal notes the movement toward annual sessions in Oregon started as far back as December 1968, when a citizen advisory committee recommended easing into them, starting after 1972.

Wong quoted the report: "Perhaps the day will come when the Oregon legislature must meet in regular session each year. But we prefer that, in Oregon's time-honored practice of phasing into major governmental change, the state should grow into an annual-sessions system, when and if it is needed, and attempt should be made to preserve the citizen-legislator tradition. In 1970 and again in 1974, voters rejected ballot measures that would have allowed lawmakers to call themselves into session. Six months after that 1974 defeat, a second panel recommended that lawmakers establish an even-numbered-year session lasting no more than 30 days.  The 30-day support session would allow time to consider material which had been studied during the interim. In addition, budgets could be re-examined as necessary. This opportunity to review budgets would decrease the burden and responsibility carried by the Emergency Board."

So what broke down to make the 2012 legislative session seem more like a three-ring circus than a smoothly running operation in accord with the citizens committee report?

One factor is the ability of individual legislators to introduce bills, even if the destination for many is to be waste paper. Measures dealing with wolves, guns, teen dating, bar piloting and trees cause turmoil without much purpose. It would be better to specify that any bills to be considered by the short session would have to come through an interim committee. If there are about 20 such interim committees and you limited the number of bills from each committee to five, as was done, that would mean 100 bills in the hopper. More than enough.

Then, even if you add the governor's bills, you would still end up with a manageable agenda.

Admittedly, it's tough to tell legislators they cannot introduce bills, an option which they might consider to be their right as elected officials. But doing so would have made the 2012 legislative session appear better organized, leaving more time to deal with priority issues such as balancing the budget.

Legislators can point to accomplishments in their first run at an official annual session and, while they stayed past their target adjournment, they also remained within the day limit in regular session over two years.  But here's hoping that planners of the 2014 short session will get together, reflect on the 2012 experience and find a way to improve the process for the benefit of all Oregonians.