Legislative session opens with dozens of proposed constitutional changes

Few are expected to pass, but they reflect lawmaker concerns and frustrations

January 19, 2023 5:30 am

Cautious investments and long-term policies aimed at reducing Oregonians’ dependence on cars could help the state weather economic uncertainty. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Lawmakers face 38 proposed changes to the state constitution this session.

Few will pass. Massive and drastic change is something to be wary of when it comes to altering the state’ core governing document, though the voters do approve changes from time to time.

But the proposals do carry messages, including of Republican frustrations in Oregon. 

Constitutional amendments are introduced as joint resolutions (a form also used to create interim committees and take some other actions) which, unlike bills, require no action by the governor for passage.

There are two bipartisan proposals. Senate Joint Resolution 10 would shift control of the legislative and congressional redistricting process from the Legislature to a new Citizens Redistricting Commission, along the lines of those in the states bordering Oregon. Early in the decade-long cycle before the next remapping effort would be the optimal time for passage. And the sponsors, Sens. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook; Jeff Golden, D-Ashland; Bill Hansell, R-Athena; and Reps. John Lively, D-Springfield; and Greg Smith, R-Heppner; are split between the parties. 

Two alternative Republican proposals, SJR 9 from Republican Sen.  Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, and SJR 25 from Sen.  Fred Girod of Stayton, have a similar goal. 

Another proposal, House Joint Resolution 8, has seven Republican sponsors and is aimed at requiring citizenship for voting. 

Democrats contributed three amendment proposals. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan asked to allow same-day voter registration (HJR 4). Sen. Chris Gorsek of Troutdale asked for expanded uses for motor vehicle tax revenues (SJR 2). Rep. David Gomberg of Otis proposed a simple word change (HJR 14), replacing “declaration of emergency” in referring to bills intended to be effective quickly, replacing that with “early implementation date.” Only Fagan’s measure seems likely to generate much discussion. 

All the other ideas were  proposed by Republican legislators, and one of their biggest concerns is the Legislature itself. Some Republicans have not made peace with the relatively recent addition of regular, short legislative sessions in even-numbered years. Sens. Art Robinson of Cave Junction (SJR 4) and Fred Girod of Stayton (SJR 24) proposed amendments to eliminate them. 

Other legislation-limiting proposals were suggested. Two (SJR 16 and SJR 20) would require two-thirds vote for passage of certain bills in even-numbered sessions. 

Rep. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, urged in HJR 6 that the supermajority or three-fifths requirement on revenue-raising bills cover more subjects, and Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, proposed SJR 1,  which would raise the 60% supermajority to two-thirds. Measures deemed an emergency would need a two-thirds vote under an amendment (HJR 11) from Reps. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem, and Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, and another (SJR 5) from Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer. 

The executive branch, under Democratic control yet again, has come in for attention in ways large and small. Proposals would allow the Legislature to overturn administrative rules by resolution (SJR 18), skirting a gubernatorial veto, or go further in requiring legislative approval before any rule could take effect (SJR 21). 

A budgeting proposal from Girod (SJR 22) would “limit increase in state governmental appropriations for general governmental purposes in biennium to least of percentage increase in projected personal income, percentage increase in projected population growth plus inflation or percentage increase in projected gross domestic product of Oregon for biennium.” 

Some are more specific, requiring legislative approval for some specific spending decisions (SJR 15), road tolling (SJR 19) or even Senate signoff on gubernatorial pardons (HJR 10 and SJR 11).

The state’s pandemic experience led to a proposed amendment “to place durational and other limitations on declarations of emergency by governor” (SJR 14 and HJR 9), the latter drawing 10 Republican legislative sponsors, the most of any proposed amendment. Yet another is more specific (HJR 7), prohibiting Oregon’s executive branch from “requiring medical procedure or vaccine or type of vaccine to be administered to any individual or class of individuals, unless legislative assembly has enacted law that expressly identifies medical procedure, vaccine or type of vaccine and individuals or classes of individuals for which medical procedure or vaccine administration is required.”

Oregon is the only state that doesn’t provide for impeachment of elected officials, and Senate Republican leader Tim Knopp of Bend offered a corrective (SJR 13) to provide that “officials could have been impeached for malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty or other high crimes or misdemeanors.”

Substance as well as process has turned up as some of the more intriguing ideas. Some are simply constitutional versions of normal Republican legislative ideas, such as carrying concealed firearms (SJR 3 by Robinson), enacting a Right to Work labor law (HJR 15), legal provisions concerning aggravated murder (HJR 3), and property tax help for owners who live in their residences (SJR 6, SJR 17, and SJR 8, the latter aimed at seniors). 

Another would establish a right to hunt and fish (HJR 5), but does allow for legal restrictions, which raises the question of what its effect would actually be. Even more explanation might be useful for SJR 7 from Sen. Cedric Hayden of Roseburg, who proposed a “constitutional right to subsist,” which would include a “right to save and exchange seeds and grow, raise, harvest and consume food of one’s own choosing.” Depending on what this might mean on a concrete level, it might get either a lot of support at the Legislature, or very little. 

Good thing the Legislature has about half a year to work: Lots of paperwork has piled up already.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this commentary misstated that Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, is a sponsor of House Joint Resolution 8 due to a legislative error. 

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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.