Legislators accustomed to short sessions should not shy from big ambitions – for Oregon’s good

The needs in the state are large and take big answers that can’t wait months for a longer session of the Oregon Legislature.

February 3, 2022 6:00 am

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, speaks with Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, and Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, at the opening session of the Oregon House on Feb. 1, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

No legislative session can compete with the excitement of a Super Bowl. But does the Oregon Legislature have to run another short, low-scoring event this year?

In a practice approved by Oregon voters in 2010, lawmakers gathered this week for their sixth even-year session and expectations were, initially, modest – not just from observers in the stands but from players on the field.

A recent survey by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center found that less than a third of Oregonians are optimistic about seeing significant progress in the upcoming session. Although the survey never mentioned “short,” respondents piled on with comments like these:

“It’s a short session…so what they can do is pretty limited.”

“Not a long enough session to get much done.”

“Too many issues and not enough time to deal with them.”

(Disclosure: I was asked by the center to review and comment on this survey.)

Meanwhile, Gov. Kate Brown proposed the equivalent of a fourth-down pass for a $200 million workforce training package – smart, and much needed. But a committee chair from her own party signaled for a time out.

“There’s complex issues there that I think will be part of this conversation that we need to have in a session,” said Rep. John Lively, “and the unfortunate thing is this is a short session, so I don’t know exactly the path forward.”

Time for a little color commentary here, because I see a different game plan developing.

The reasons for downplaying these sessions are not just that they have a short clock (just 35 days). They were also sold to the voters as an opportunity for tune-ups and clean-ups of state budgets and policies rather than the potential for timely responses to urgent problems.

Prior to 2010, Senate President Peter Courtney was wary of what voters would think of annual sessions, and he was obsessed with sticking to “go home” deadlines. So, what the legislature sent to the ballot was the time-limited proposal for the even-year sessions we have now.

When these sessions first convened, legislative leaders shorted the number of bills that their members could introduce and urged them to think small. But things are changing this year, as homelessness remains a major problem and the disruptions of the pandemic ripple through our schools, hospitals and businesses.

Challenges like these demand more than wait-until-next-year responses. And there are precedents for lawmakers to up their game this time.

When even-year sessions became routine, lobbyists and advocates of all stripes quickly figured out that election-year scrimmages were well-timed to respond to threatening ballot measures. They convinced legislators to use these sessions to counter the plays of initiative sponsors and settle matters that would otherwise head to the ballot.

So, if the legislature can use the short sessions to respond to the dictates of initiative practitioners, what about tackling the big things that are top of mind for Oregonians? It should be obvious now that big challenges don’t arise on biennial schedules, nor should they wait for a response in every-other-year playoffs.

Rep. Dan Rayfield, the new House speaker, seems to be taking a broader view of the field of play than some of his committee chairs. He told OPB this week that the challenges of the moment demand a more expansive and ambitious agenda.

That’s encouraging, because this is not a time when lawmakers have to patch budgets. They have more money to work with – and more problems to solve – than ever before.

I’m rooting for one big play in particular.

The state is holding more than a billion dollars in unspent federal funds provided to address the learning losses suffered by our schoolkids during the pandemic. How about drawing up a plan to deploy some of these funds to extend the school year and organize summer sessions for every school district in the state?

Even Courtney, ever the cheerleader for bipartisanship, now wants to move in this direction. That’s evidence this is not a play that will cause Republicans to stomp off the field. There’s a real chance for a win-win here.

And, if the legislature’s tight timeline risks running out the clock, it’s always possible to have the governor reset it, using her authority to convene special sessions. Go into overtime, if you have to, lawmakers.

If you deliver for Oregonians, they’ll cheer you in the end.



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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.