Disparate Leaders Guide Ways and Means

It would be hard to find three more disparate lawmakers than those who will be at the center of budget debates over the next month as the legislature pushes to adjourn on time.

A lot rides on the outcome for those interested in spending for K-12 schools, higher education, cops and prisons and social services.  So it makes sense to consider the backgrounds of the three co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which when referred to stories by the media, often carries the adjective, "powerful Ways and Means Committee."  The three co-chairs are:

  • Representative Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point
  • Representative Peter Buckley, D-Ashland
  • Senator Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin

In the House, Richardson and Buckley reflect the political divide in a body that is under split control for the first time in history, with 30 Republicans and 30 Democrats. Richardson comes from the right and Buckley from the left. 

Richardson is conservative, believing government should get out of the way and impose strict limits on the allocation of resources.  At the same time, in real life in Central Point, he is a trial lawyer, a vocation that has struck many Capitol observers as nothing if not an interesting contrast – a trial lawyer who, by his convictions, appears to disavow the usual liberal tendencies of this profession. Growing up in Southern California, Richardson served in the U.S. Army, including a stint flying helicopters in Vietnam, before coming home and moving to Oregon to raise a family with his wife, Cathy, who now functions as an assistant in his legislative office. 

By contrast, Buckley is a classic liberal, believing there is a role for government in many activities of daily life.  In particular, he has championed state requirements for health insurers to cover services for the developmentally disabled, perhaps in part because of the role played in such services by his parents.  In his official state website, Buckley describes his upbringing as "all about social justice and service... the only question was how are you going to serve."  In Ashland, before coming to the legislature, Buckley worked as a manager for non-profit organizations.

In the Senate, Devlin holds the Ways and Means gavel alone in a 30-member body controlled by Democrats with a 16-14 margin.

He represents his side of the aisle well and, among the three Ways and Means co-chairs, has the most experience, having served in the legislature since 1996. After three terms in the House, he moved to the Senate where, in 2007, he became majority leader. He stepped down in 2010, but many observers believed it was not a downward move as he almost immediately was named to co-chair the "powerful" Ways and Means Committee. 

In the biographical sketch on his legislative website, Devlin says "he has been a leading advocate on education and child safety issues." Almost every seasoned Ways and Means lobbyist would agree with the description. The sketch also mentions his occupational background in adult and juvenile corrections where he has focused on civil and criminal investigations.

So, with these diverse backgrounds, both politically and vocationally, how will these three legislators share the gavel in Ways and Means?  That will be one of the most interesting of the budget-making process between now and the end of June.

Buckley and Devlin, different as they are in person and by background, tend to be cut from the same political cloth left of center.  Richardson, no – he is well right of center. But the challenge, one each of them says they accept and even relish, will be finding the smart middle ground that can attract enough votes on the floors of both chambers. On occasion, it may turn out that, in the House, Democrats bring 16 votes and Republicans bring 16 votes to provide the necessary margin. In the Senate, it may be a bit easier.

In the end, Richardson, Buckley and Devlin have no choice but to succeed because, once a legislature arrives in Salem, the only task it must perform is to adopt a balanced budget for the next biennium.

    [The writer, CFM partner Dave Fiskum, has lobbied in the Ways and Means process for more than 30 years, a tenure he hates on most occasions to admit.]