“Emergencies” Top Short Session Docket

Senate President Peter Courtney helped to convince Oregonians to approve annual sessions and now presides over a 35-day session packed with legislative “emergencies."

Senate President Peter Courtney helped to convince Oregonians to approve annual sessions and now presides over a 35-day session packed with legislative “emergencies."

The strains of a short even-year legislative session sprouted on day one as Republicans in the Oregon House and Senate demanded each of the 260 bills introduced be read aloud word by word.

The message sent by GOP lawmakers is that a 35-day session is too short to consider legislation raising the minimum wage, altering corporate taxation, addressing affordable housing and adopting a pair of far-reaching energy bills.

Those measures are on the legislative docket as a last-ditch effort to keep the issues they raise off the November ballot.

Oregon’s election-year annual session has evolved into a different, though perhaps inevitable role from its original conception. Senate President Peter Courtney, who led the push for annual sessions, sold the plan as a way to update the state’s biennial budget, pass minor legislative fixes and deal with emergencies that couldn’t wait.

Emergencies that can’t wait now apparently include blockbuster ballot measures that would raise the minimum wage as high as $15 per hour, slap a gross receipts tax on large corporate taxpayers and force Oregon utilities to ditch coal-generated electricity.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli tweaked Courtney’s memory of the purpose of the short even-year legislative session by saying, “As I recall, Oregonians were sold on the idea of annual meetings with the promise that the ‘short session' would focus on balancing the budget, making small legislative ‘fixes' and responding to emergencies that need immediate attention.  I'm sorry to report that the 'short session' has become little more than a setting for the majority party to pursue an over-reaching agenda of tax increases, regulation and ideological issues dear to the progressives who rule Portland and to a great extent, the rest of Oregon.”

The last part of Ferrioli’s statement reflects his underlying opposition to all of the heavy-duty legislative proposals that are on the table thanks largely to Democratic-leaning activists. The exception is the coal-to-clean bill that was negotiated by utilities and environmental groups.

Governor Brown has offered an alternative minimum wage proposal and Senator Mark Hass, chair of Senate Finance, is proposing a scaled down corporate tax measure.

While those high-profile issues command attention, other significant legislation has been introduced to address marijuana industry regulation, gun sales, processing of rape kits and a few bills that didn’t make it out of the longer 2015 legislative session.

The racer-fast pace of a short session – if a bill can’t get a hearing, markup and a vote in the first two weeks, it is basically dead – provides plenty of fodder for skeptics. House Republican Leader Mike McLane said one-hour notice for a hearing on a major bill doesn’t allow enough time from someone from Eastern Oregon to show up to testify.

In the end, emergencies are in the eye of the beholder. For many Portland-area legislators, for example, the growing housing affordability problem in the city has elevated to a crisis that requires a legislative response. Their proposed response, which requires construction of affordable housing and puts limits on evictions of renters, may not seem so urgent in other parts of Oregon.