Voters May Decide 'Fake Emergencies Act'

Opponents say “emergency clauses” are added to bills by lawmakers who want to thwart voter referrals. Others say the Oregon Constitution shouldn’t be cluttered with provisions to hamstring the legislature and enshrine bad policy.

Opponents say “emergency clauses” are added to bills by lawmakers who want to thwart voter referrals. Others say the Oregon Constitution shouldn’t be cluttered with provisions to hamstring the legislature and enshrine bad policy.

In addition to deciding on a major corporate tax hike, Oregonians may have a chance this fall to cast a vote on the “No More Fake Emergencies Act.”

Wilsonville attorney Eric Winters is the chief petitioner for IP 49, a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it harder for Oregon lawmakers to slap “emergency clauses” on legislation. Winters says lawmakers use emergency clauses to deny opponents a 90-day window to refer controversial legislation, such as a measure to extend the life of the low-carbon fuel standard.

This is campaign literature from NoFakeEmergencies.org in support of IP 49, which seeks to limit use of emergency clauses on legislation in the Oregon legislature.

This is campaign literature from NoFakeEmergencies.org in support of IP 49, which seeks to limit use of emergency clauses on legislation in the Oregon legislature.

Supporters are still collecting signatures on IP 49, which must top 117,578 to qualify for the November election ballot.

There is a case that legislators use emergency clauses liberally for what you might describe as non-emergencies. The Oregonian editorial about IP 49 poked fun at emergency clauses attached in the 2016 session to innocuous bills expanding the Travel Information Council, creating a Trail Blazers license plate and authorizing an ODOT study to boost ridership on passenger rail.

Under IP 49, lawmakers would need a two-thirds majority to approve a bill with an emergency clause, which Winters thinks would be a deterrent to frivolous use of the technique. IP 49 creates exceptions for biennial spending measures and bills passed during emergency legislative sessions called to address actual disasters.

Tax-raising measures are already off limits for emergency clauses, and they have been referred to voters fairly often. Tax measures also require a three-fifths majority to pass in the Oregon House and Senate, which translates into 36 House votes and 18 Senate votes.

IP 49 follows criticism about the 2016 session that critics complained went far beyond the bounds of a short 35-day legislative session. Annual sessions were sold as a way to give lawmakers a chance to tweak the state’s biennial budget, make technical corrections to legislation passed in the longer regular session and address emergencies. As they have evolved, annual sessions have become a vastly expedited miniature of regular sessions, dealing with substantive and often controversial topics.

In fairness, some of the controversial measures, such as a higher minimum wage, were aimed at heading off costly, divisive ballot measures. That may or may not constitute a true emergency, but timing was important.

Oregon has had mixed experience with cluttering the state Constitution with requirements like this, which may prompt some political observers to oppose the ballot measure, while urging lawmakers to exhibit more discipline in the use of emergency clauses.

Liberal-leaning Blue Oregon notes the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times in more than 200 years, but the Oregon Constitution has been routinely tinkered with, turning it into “an ugly, lengthy, wide-ranging and ridiculous document.” Amendments, the group says, have been “shamelessly used to hamstring the legislature, enshrine poor policy and indict differences of opinion.”