Legislature Ends Short Session of Modest Accomplishments

House Speaker Tina Kotek blamed inaction by Washington lawmakers for failure of the Oregon legislature to keep alive the Columbia River Crossing project.The 2014 “short” legislative session came to an orderly end Friday. At 33 days, the session nearly bumped up against the constitutional limit of 35 days for short sessions held in even-numbered years. The session will be remembered for modest achievements and a budget rebalance.

At the beginning of February, there were a number of big policy issues in play. Liquor privatization and marijuana legalization legislative referrals, gun control legislation and the Columbia River Crossing were high on the “to-do” list for legislative leaders. None of those issues passed the legislature.

The legislature also passed on issues that grew heat towards the end of the session: changes to class-action lawsuits to fund legal aid, modifying the ballot title for a driver’s license referendum and a bill to change the investment division of the State Treasurer.

There were some significant actions. The legislature authorized $198 million in bonds for the OHSU Knight Cancer Challenge, but only if OHSU raises the other $800 million first. A land-use “grand bargain” passed that codifies an out-of-court agreement among parties in Washington County. The legislature managed to find a way to tax pre-paid cell phones for 911 services.  And, most important, the legislature rebalanced the budget and found a way to fund a few new initiatives.

In the past week, the legislature received a lot of press about end-of-session partisanship. Some claimed this legislature used the short session to address issues best left to longer, regular sessions. When compared to previous short sessions, both official and unofficial, this session has been comparatively calm.

Few major initiatives were able to move through the process, while many timely problem-solving bills were passed. The disputes this session, though heated, rarely sidetracked the progress of the session for more than a day or two. Despite the press, the legislature did complete its work — and adjourned within the 35-day window.

Oregon’s experience with annual sessions has just begun. It will take time for legislators, the governor, advocates and the public to calibrate expectations adequately for what can — and should — be accomplished during a short session. The 2014 session is a step in the right direction on how to manage those expectations.