The work done by legislators shows the need for and value of Oregon’s short sessions

Practical politics also plays a role in what doesn’t get approved – a nod to the campaign season.

March 11, 2022 5:30 am

State representatives take part in the opening session of the Oregon House on Feb. 1, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Thirty-five days is not a lot of time, especially in an election year.

Those are all the days an even-year regular session of the Oregon Legislature has, and this year’s session wrapped its work in even fewer.

That Oregon’s legislators got as much done on so many subjects as they did this year is remarkable (though the hyper-speed with which they operated at the end should be cause for some concern). But the things they didn’t get done should provide an indicator of how much realistically to expect from a short session, unless those sessions are made a little longer.

It may be hard now to remember, but regular election-year sessions are a new development in Oregon.

In 2010, Oregonians approved Ballot Measure 71 by a landslide, but it was presented as a limited solution borne of necessity; advocates probably were well aware that 20 years before Oregon voters had rejected annual sessions proposed in Measure 3.

When Measure 71 was passed, the argument for the short sessions was (as one summary reported) that “the state was too complex for lawmakers to expect a two-year budget to undergo no changes between sessions. Additionally, proponents said that some policy decisions simply could not or should not be put on hold until the next session.”

Improved budgeting was the primary consideration, along with emergency actions that just couldn’t wait.

After a decade of short sessions, how does that stack up?

On the budget front, it seems to have worked as advertised. Much of the work of the short sessions has been financial, adjusting (often upward) budget levels. Many of the major items from this year’s session fit that template.

Federal funding and higher-than-expected state revenues left the state with a large pool of money to deal with, almost $2.7 billion on top of spending from the previous year. Some of that money now is going into mental health, child care, affordable housing, and other concerns.

Spending hawks may disagree with some choices, but money management is part of what a short session is supposed to handle.

This session did a good deal else, of course, even with some of the pressure taken off by a December special session that handled some high-profile topics.

Legislators passed a bill limiting when police can pull over drivers (no longer for broken tail lights). They passed a bill intended to make air conditioning more affordable. (After last year’s heat dome, you could consider that an emergency measure.) They enacted some protection for school superintendents from politically-inspired firings.

In something of a surprise, they passed a bill on overtime pay for farm workers, an issue that had been simmering for years.

They even addressed, through complex iterations, greyhound racing.

Considering they did all this in about a month (recognizing that many of the issues had been discussed at length long before), you have to guess some of these matters will be back for tweaks in the future.

But more suggestive of the limits of a short session are the items that failed, especially some that had significant support.

The proposal to allow gas stations to set up for self-service almost statewide seemed to have some serious push, but it sputtered toward the end. It didn’t, House leaders said, quite make the cut in the final rush of action.

In every session there’s some triage: Decisions leaders in the legislature make about what will and won’t get priority as time is running out. In a longer session, there’s more time to run a subject, even a controversial one, through the system.

Another factor probably did in plans to raise legislator pay (in a big way) and change campaign finance reporting rules: This is an election year. Increases in elected officials’ pay is never popular, and legislators rarely like to raise those just ahead of elections. And changing the rules in a campaign season is always problematic. Both of these seem more like long-session subjects.

Eventually, the legislature may develop clearer rules for what should and shouldn’t be taken up in a short session.

For now, we see a developing tension.

The reach of the short sessions seems to be restrained by the time limitations and the political incentive against controversy in election season.

But there’s also the apparently inevitable push to get things done when the opportunity arises, as it does now, every year rather than every other year.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.