A Look at 2011 Legislative Leaders

Much has been written about the just-completed 2011 session of the Oregon legislature, but perhaps not enough about the key political personalities who drove the process and will be in charge when legislators reconvene next february.

Here's our take on key leaders:

Legislative leaders 

Sen. Peter Courtney (left) and Reps. Arnie Roblan and Bruce HannaThe three top presiding officers – Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Keizer; Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay; and Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg – have received a lot of credit for the reasonable conduct of legislative affairs this session.  They deserve it.  Their personalities, very different individually, meshed well and they combined to avoid the acrimony of the 2009 session. No doubt the nearly even split in control – 30 to 30 in the House and 16 to 14 for Democrats in the Senate left no choice but to reach agreement or get nothing done. That left The Oregonian to posit that split control should be the new norm in legislative sessions.

The second tier

A very unusual threesome – Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point; Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland; and Senator Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin – also managed to run the Joint Ways and Means Committee process with reasonable dispatch. In Richardson and Buckley, you could not find two more polar opposites in political philosophy and style.  Yet, they managed to get along, with differences emerging in public only infrequently. Devlin said he became the mediator on occasion, using his experience and bookish style to surmount differences.

Critics might say the Ways and Means process left too many issues unresolved – or at least left a huge workload for the February annual session, including budgets for programs that cannot survive the second year of the biennium without an infusion of resources or deep cuts.

The most crucial decision these leaders made was to forego focusing on the "current service level" funding gap and instead concentrated on what programs to fund within "available revenue." The difference is huge. The current service level gap – what it would take to continue all programs from 2009-11 into 2011-13, with allocations for inflation, caseload and other increased costs – was estimated at $3.5 million at the start of the session. Budget-makers essentially ignored that number, focusing instead on what they could buy with projected revenue in 2011-13, which was at about the same level as in the previous biennium.

That approach drew praise from Republican lawmakers who had been frustrated by the current service level calculations, which almost always resulted in calls for increased taxes. Leaving behind the current service level approach also made sense to Governor Kitzhaber and Democrats because it allowed them to focus on spending realities, not pie-in-the-sky hopes for new revenue that never would have gained traction in a politically split legislature.

Rep. Tina KotekRep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, an experienced member of the Ways and Means Committee and new House Democratic leader, put it very well when she told Ways and Means lobbyists that "we'll be dealing with the current spending level, not the current service level."

Emerging legislative leaders

There always is a risk in predicting which new legislators will emerge as leaders because the title of "leader" often depends more on caucus politics than on personal ability.  And, when a lobbyist writes about budding leaders, the words may relate more to what one lobbyist saw than on the session as a whole.

Rep. Mark JohnsonRisks aside, two new legislators distinguished themselves by their performance this session. One was Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, who played a key role in producing the legislature's strong record on education policy. He also appeared to pay close attention to his roots in the Columbia Gorge, demonstrating a session-long interest in the perceptions of Providence Hood River Hospital, a key employer in his district.

Rep. Shawn LindsayAnother Republican representative, Shawn Lindsay, R-Hillsboro, who won high marks on the campaign trail when he won his seat, made a good impression in his first legislative session.  He won plaudits for his role in co-chairing the Redistricting Committee, which confounded experts by producing two redistricting plans – one for the legislature and another for Oregon's congressional districts that cleared both the full House and the full Senate.

Rep. Julie ParrishA third new legislator, Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, wrote a piece for The Oregonian last weekend suggesting that the nine Republican legislators in the House distinguished themselves by their collective performance this session. 

She may be right.

They and 81 other colleagues in the House and Senate will have a chance to reprise their work next February when there will be a substantial workload, plus the reality of a looming election season.

Footnote:  The author, CFM partner Dave Fiskum, has lobbied for more than 20 years at the Capitol in Salem