The Republican boycott of cap and trade effectively prevented Democrats from enacting climate legislation, but their absence also prevented the Legislature from accomplishing much of anything during this year’s short session.
That’s not how Oregonians want their Legislature to function. Politics might be the only profession where taking off can lead to political victory or at least a stalemate, but no one likes it.
Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, sent a letter urging Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to “focus on budget adjustments and policy fixes,” the original intent of the short session, rather than pushing through big and controversial bills.
Oregonians in 2010 approved Ballot Measure 71 to amend the the state’s Constitution to establish annual sessions. The outcome wasn’t even close. Voters supported the measure about 68% to 32%. The new law went into effect in 2011, setting up the regular or long session at 160 calendar days in odd-numbered years and limiting the session in even-numbered years to 35 days.
The short session also comes with some limiting criteria. House members can introduce no more than two bills, and state senators get one each. Interim committees can propose no more than five bills. The executive branch can present no more than five bills at the request of the governor. The same goes for the judicial branch at the request of the Oregon chief justice.
Those limits made sense then and still do. A month and some days does not allow much time to get through thousands of bills the regular session handles. There’s scant time to hold hearings and take input from experts and from the people laws could affect.
And Baertschiger is right about what persuaded voters to approve annual sessions. They wanted lawmakers to deal with budget fixes or tweak laws that had unintended consequences sooner rather than every two years or when the governor called a special session. But now in year eight, the experiment has been uneven. Lawmakers — primarily Democrats — have used the short session to introduce sweeping legislation.
They tried in 2018 to push cap and trade. The complex legislation did not gain much traction. That led to the conflict in the 2019 regular session when Republican senators took off to block passage. And it set up the showdown that ended this session, which escalated to the point of House Democrats issuing subpoenas to compel their Republican colleagues to return to the Oregon Capitol.
Legislators in the two chambers could avoid this with rules specific to the short session requiring bills have bipartisan support or bipartisan sponsors before they get any hearing. Even committee bills could have that requirement, the same for what comes down from the governor’s office or the judiciary.
The House and Senate would have to adopt their own sets of rules for this end, but it could help ensure controversial legislation or bills that require a lot of examination and fact-gathering don’t make it very far. It also would avoid walkouts that dam up the entire legislative process and put other meaningful and vital legislation in jeopardy. And having bipartisan support, of course, would not guarantee any bill’s ultimate passage.
The two chambers could even create an end-around: As long as two-thirds of the House and Senate agree, they could dig into something like cap and trade. They already have a similar rule that allows for the a five-day extension of the short session.
Of course, passing these kinds of rules would require Democrat support. And they should support it. The Democrats right now look like the stereotype so much of rural Oregon sees them as: political know-it-alls who want to dictate to Oregonians what is best for them.
That’s the very attitude that widens Oregon’s urban-rural divide rather than helps to close it.