Hard to read summaries, supposedly behind Senate walkout, could easily be fixed

Public confidence is undermined by summaries studded with jargon that only insiders understand

June 6, 2023 5:30 am
Oregon Legislature

People walk down a hallway toward the Senate wing at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and leader of the Oregon Senate Republicans who in effect have staged another quorum-denying walkout, has acknowledged the obvious: The walkout was about the content of a group of bills, about policy choices, not a technical issue of whether their summaries met legal requirements.

Before moving on from what clearly was a pretext for a walkout, however, we should ask: Was the complaint about hard-to-read summaries grounded in fact? There is something meaningful at stake here, which is our ability to understand what our legislators are working on. 

And the issue is not dead. Two Republican lawmakers along with an anti-abortion organization are suing over the contention that the summaries on at least certain legislation is unclear, and Republican legislators reportedly are at work on recrafting summaries of their own. 

Like most other states, Oregon’s Legislature produces summaries of the bills which are introduced. Those summaries exist because the text of many bills, which in theory should be understandable for an average reader, often is not because of the need for cross-references through the state code, legal boilerplate and other technical limitations. The bill summaries are supposed to be written plainly enough that most Oregonians can easily understand what the bill is intended to do.

A specific legal requirement is built into state law with the intent of assuring this: Hitting the mark of 60 (readability at about the eighth-grade level) on the Flesch test. This column has a Flesch reading ease score of 45.7, falling short of the state’s bill summary requirement. 

Former Republican state Rep. Michael McLane has pointed out that online calculators can be used to test readability of any text passage, and he said in a legal opinion solicited by GOP senators, “I have done that for quite a few bills and must report that I have yet to find a measure summary that complies with the law.” 

Putting aside the results of readability tests: Not all but many of the summaries actually are hard for average readers, or really almost anyone, to properly understand. 

Oregon’s legislation can be found on the Legislature’s website under “bills,” along with lots of information about them, including their progress through the chambers, their financial impact and more. Summaries for each bill can be found under the heading “catchline/summary.”

Coming from many sources – both parties, agencies, interest groups and more – they vary widely. Many are clear. Many others are confusing or simply incomprehensible. 

To take one example, the summary for Senate Bill 5 says, “Restores corporate excise tax credit allowed for qualified research activities and sets increased maximum credit amount.” That gives you a reasonable idea of what the bill is intended to do.

Similarly with Senate Bill 11, which, “Requires state boards or commissions that conduct public meetings through electronic means to record and promptly publish recording on website or hosting service so that public may observe or listen to meetings free of charge.”

Some summaries are not exactly unclear but raise more questions than they answer. Take for example the apparently quixotic Senate Bill 20: “Requires Public Utility Commission to study feasibility of converting Portland General Electric into a people’s utility district. Directs commission to submit findings to interim committees of Legislative Assembly related to utilities no later than September 1, 2024.”

Other summaries are simply head-scratching. The most-discussed recent example, House Bill 2002, clearly relates to abortion, but after that comprehension is elusive. Here’s the first few sentences from its bill summary:

“Modifies provisions relating to reproductive health rights. Modifies provisions relating to access to reproductive health care and gender-affirming treatment. Modifies provisions relating to protections for providers of and individuals receiving reproductive and gender-affirming health care services. Creates crime of interfering with a health care facility. Punishes by maximum of 364 days’ imprisonment, $6,250 fine, or both. Creates right of action for person or health care provider aggrieved by interference with health care facility.

Things are being modified and a crime is created, evidently, but that’s about as much as you can tell from this summary, and the rest of the text, which runs for about a page, is no better.

That example is not unique. 

Senate Bill 3 has this: “Requires students to complete [one credit of future planning as requirement] one half-credit of higher education and career path skills and one half-credit of personal financial education as requirements for high school diploma. Directs State Board of Education to adopt academic content standards for [future planning and] higher education and career path skills and for personal financial education. Requires school districts and public charter schools to provide instruction in [future planning] higher education and career path skills and personal financial education. Applies to high school diplomas awarded on or after [July 1, 2025] January 1, 2027. Allows waiver of one year if certain conditions met.” Got that? (Some of the text is in bold and some in italics, without explanation; the brackets are as they appear in the original.)

There’s room for confusion on Senate Bill 2 as well: “Creates Oregon personal income tax subtraction for amounts received for renting out room in taxpayer’s home.”

More instances abound. 

Many of these problems are not about grade-level comprehension so much as they are about jargon and inside-the statehouse language; the holder of a doctorate could not follow some of these summaries without a jargon dictionary handy. Better than feeding text to a reading-level calculator would be a process for submitting it to people outside state government (and government-influencing) circles, inquiring whether people not in the know would clearly understand what it says and intends. 

This is a fixable problem. And there’s still time in this legislative session to take a serious crack at solving it. Public confidence in the Legislature, never at a great high in the best of times, is being undermined. This is a fix that requires no money or even any change on policy, just a little more sunlight and honesty. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.