Capitol (copy)

The Oregon State Capitol in Salem. The current building was constructed in 1938 after a fire in April 1935 destroyed the capitol building constructed in 1876.

Mark Ylen

Chances are good that you were among those voters who gave the green light to annual legislative sessions when the idea landed on state ballots in 2010.

Ballot Measure 71 passed with better than a 2-to-1 margin statewide. The measure won a majority in every one of Oregon's 36 counties.

Most Oregon voters — even those with a (well-founded) fear of the Legislature — understood that state government had become such a complicated operation that legislators simply couldn't keep an eye on it by meeting every other year.

But the measure was carefully structured to ease the fears of voters: Most of the Legislature's heavy lifting, we were told, would occur in sessions that took place in odd-numbered years. Those sessions would run 160 days. Those were the sessions to pitch big ideas or major changes in state policies.

The sessions scheduled for even-numbered years, such as the one that will begin next year, were intended essentially for legislators to tie up loose ends from the longer sessions; the idea was that legislators would use the 35-day sessions to rebalance budgets and make technical fixes to laws.

There's a good reason for that: A 35-day session is not the place for big ideas to get the full hearing they deserve, let alone for those ideas to get the public exposure they deserve.

But that's not how the short sessions have played out in recent years. The 2016 session alone featured two big policy measures, a bill requiring power companies to eliminate coal-fired resources from their power supply and another measure to increase the state's minimum wage. Regardless of what you think about both of those measures, they deserved more consideration than they received in the short session.

All of which explains why it's alarming to learn that another big-deal bill may be getting the short-session treatment in 2018. The Oregonian reported over the weekend that many Democrats, including Gov. Kate Brown, will be pushing for a bill to cap greenhouse gases and charge some of the state's largest companies for their carbon output.

The Oregonian reported that Brown has several work groups hammering out the numerous details of the proposal, but the hope is to have bill language ready by November.

To be fair, this bill proposal follows on the heels of other similar bills that haven't gotten much traction yet in the Legislature, so it's not a complete surprise that it's surfacing now.

But so many details remain to be worked out that even some Democrats, such as Sen. Mark Hass of Beaverton, are questioning the wisdom of trying to push it through in a short session. "I'm not sure we have all the answers on a giant policy like that to act in 30 days," Hass told The Oregonian.

It's not just that: Other issues might be competing for legislators' attention during the 2018 session, including school funding and the increasing unfunded liability of Oregon's public pension system, which recently grew to $25.3 billion, not that anyone appears to be counting.

But here's one of the reasons why Brown and other Democrats might want to be pushing the carbon-tax proposal: It could raise big money — $700 million a year — for the state.

Although numerous details remain to be worked out, two ideas are likely to be at the heart of the proposal, according to The Oregonian story: a statewide mandate to lower greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 and a requirement that some of the state's biggest polluters would have to pay for their emissions. That money would go to the state, but no one knows yet where exactly it would be spent — or, for that matter, which branch of an already stretched-thin state government will administer the program.

Sound complex? It is. All the better reason for the people pushing the proposal to take their time and aim for the 2019 session, when it will have ample opportunity for the full hearing — with ample opportunities for public input — it deserves. (mm)

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