A Reflection on Oregon Co-Governance

It would be hard to dispute that the Oregon House, split 30-30, put aside partisanship and produced tangible legislative results.As we approach the November 2012 election, it is timely to reflect on how well co-governance has worked in the Oregon House the last two years as Democrats and Republicans each held 30 seats.

Any reasonable assessment of co-governance would indicate that it has been, in the main, a success.

Republicans and Democrats managed to find a way to work together, with co-speakers of the House, co-chairs of every legislative committee, co-vice-chairs of every committee and "co" everything else.

Truly, it has been an experience in which legislators, regardless of party label, found a way to identify the middle on a host of pressing public policy problems. At a time when there appears to be almost nothing but acrimony, recrimination and name-calling in the presidential and congressional campaigns, it has been refreshing to watch Oregon’s elected officials work together to express the very definition of politics — the art of compromise.

Here are a few examples where legislators found common ground:

       *  Deciding not to propose any increased taxes while Oregonians try to recover from a stubborn recession — that could have driven another wedge between businesses and unions.

       *  Agreeing across party lines to balance the state budget, with a larger-than-normal ending balance.

       *  Moving ahead on health care reform that, at least in theory, proposes to provide health care to more Oregonians while slowing the growth in the cost of care.

       *  Moving ahead on education reform, with a goal to prod all segments of education — K-12, community colleges, colleges and graduate school — to cooperate more closely towards a goal of increased student success.

       *  Moving ahead on early learning reform, with an eye to improving services for children between 0 and 5 years of age.

       *  Setting the stage for prison sentencing reform to stem the prison-building boom, which has become another strain on the state's general fund.

Of course, there also were failures. Republicans weren't able to convince Democrats to consider GOP "job-creating bills" and Democrats were unsuccessful in convincing Republicans to adopt stronger foreclosure protection legislation.

So, why did co-governance work? One reason was that legislators, from the co-speakers on down, were more interested in producing results than getting credit — owing in part to a critical legislative ingredient of personality, which is often missing, humility. The two co-speakers, Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, and Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, hailed from rural Oregon and used that geographical affinity as a common bond.

Legislators, at least for a few months, set aside electioneering to focus on governing, with fewer floor votes designed to set up their opponents in the next election.

There is little likelihood co-governance will exist in the 2013 legislature. The 2010 election produced the first even split in the House in Oregon's history. Chances are Democrats or Republicans will take control, perhaps by a slim margin. 

In a public speech last weekend, one legislator expressed hope that House members will remember the lessons learned under co-governance — especially the humility — that could repeat the commendable output of the 2011 session when no one was in control, but everyone was accountable.


My extended comments on this topic will be included in a documentary produced by Neil Simon, a former intern for KOIN-TV in Portland. The on-camera interviewer was Mike Donahue, who recently retired after 44 years at KOIN and was honored recently as Broadcaster of the Year by the Oregon Association of Broadcasters.