5 Pitfalls to Avoid for Successful Special Session

Governor Kitzhaber continues to press for a grand budget bargain dealt with in a special legislative session. He may do well to remember well-known pitfalls on the road he is traveling.Governor Kitzhaber is making headlines as he tries to put together a deal on PERS cuts and revenue enhancement for legislative consideration in a special session sometime this fall.

Trying to find a legislative path to increase revenue or change PERS is tough enough during a regular session. To assemble a deal on both — in the interim — and call legislators back into special session to pass it is a herculean task at best.  

Kitzhaber's track record of success on big ticket items, along with his depth of experience in Oregon policymaking, gives him a head start, but there are at least five key pitfalls he should avoid as he traverses this difficult path.

1. 45 to 36, 23 to 18 — Oregon law requires 36 votes in the House and 18 votes in the Senate to pass any measure that raises revenue. But the math is never that simple when it comes to finding enough votes to pass a revenue raiser. A good rule of thumb is it will take three-fourths of the body in favor of a measure to find the three-fifths necessary to pass it. Kitzhaber has a lot of votes to find to pass this conceptual package.

2.  Special sessions aren't short, regular sessions — A special session is not just a short version of a regular session; it's a horse of a completely different color. Unlike regular sessions, the only bill (or bills) at stake are the topics for which the session is convened. Rank-and-file legislators generally have little to do but vote and are prone to a particular version of grumpiness about a lack of shared information and/or decision-making about the bills in play. Most important, individual members do not have individual bills at stake, making negotiations on the central issue even more difficult. No one knows this better than Kitzhaber, who was part of five special sessions in 2002.

3. Lame ducks — Not long after the end of the long regular session, legislators start to announce their intention to run — or not — in the upcoming election. Those who choose not to run, or run for other offices, are also known as lame ducks and can pose a unique challenge to legislative leadership. Two members of the House have already announced their intention not to run for re-election. Rep. Tim Freeman, R-Roseburg, announced he will seek a position on the Douglas County Commission early in the 2013 session. Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, says he will run for governor. Lame ducks are difficult to manage because they have nothing they want in the future from legislative leaders, thus have little reason to cooperate. Richardson may pose an even greater challenge as he balances reforming an issue he has talked about for years — PERS — with the possibility of a major political win for his likely — if yet unannounced — opponent, Governor Kitzhaber. By the time a special session would be called, these two may have additional company in the lame duck caucus.

4. Don't forget the minority... or the majority — No one likes to be forgotten, and everyone thinks they are important. This truism is particularly important when considering the dynamics of the caucuses. Kitzhaber will need to court the minority GOP caucuses to raise revenue, ticking off their political base, while convincing the majority Democratic caucuses to make additional changes to PERS, angering a key part of their political base. Making sure that all four caucuses — including their leaders — feel they are a valued part of the negotiations is a critical, but nearly impossible, task. It's all part of the delicate balance of putting together a package of this magnitude.

5. Outside distractions — Public policy isn't made in a vacuum. Outside distractions play a major role in the outcome of these discussions. While the governor is negotiating with Ds and Rs to put together a package, they also will be influenced by interest groups (business, unions, parent groups, etc.) that have fewer distractions now that the session is out. The political calendar, fundraising and national political mood all have an impact on the ability to get traction on big issues with individual members.  Not to mention that after almost seven months of being in Salem, members are back to their own personal and professional lives — and are easily distracted from focusing on pounding out a major deal with political consequences.

Altogether, these pitfalls create a tough landscape for Kitzhaber to find common ground for a grand bargain. If he can do it, this success — additional revenue and a reduction of $5 billion in unfunded public employee pension liability — may just be his biggest win yet.