I got a chance this past week to hobnob with legislators and other newspaper people at a reception sponsored by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. (Confidential to mid-valley legislators: I'm not at all upset that not one of you showed up. I know you're busy. Not a problem. Doesn't bother me at all.)
The association, which represents the state's newspapers, likes to hold an event like this every session to renew connections with legislators in an informal setting. It's common for trade groups like the association to hold similar gatherings: In fact, there were at least one or two other receptions going on at the same time as ours in the same hotel and convention center Wednesday evening.
The convention center also was hosting a trade show featuring the latest in hot tubs, and it's not hard to imagine that some of the legislators stopped to gaze longingly over that merchandise. On Wednesday evening, this year's five-week short session officially was half over, and the pace thus far, which has been brutal on legislators and lobbyists alike, only will pick up over the remaining couple of weeks. The idea of a lengthy soak in a hot tub, especially one of these gleaming new models, had to seem appealing.
When you hear lobbyists, some of whom actually get paid reasonably well, complain about the session, that's a clue that something has gone awry with the entire philosophy behind these short sessions. As you might remember, when Oregon voters approved annual legislative sessions, we were told that most of the heavy lifting would be done in the 160-day sessions held in odd-numbered years. The 35-day sessions held in even-numbered years, we were told, would be set aside for balancing the state's budget and tying up loose ends left behind from the longer sessions.
That approach made sense: While voters understood that Oregon state government had become too complicated for a Legislature that met just every other year, they also were justifiably wary about summoning legislators for extended stays in Salem every year.
The idea about reserving the short sessions for smaller bits of business made sense for another reason as well: The pace of the shorter sessions makes it virtually impossible for members of the public to weigh in on legislation. That's not a good practice for a state government that talks a lot about transparency but doesn't always follow through.
As it turns out, it's even difficult for legislators to stay on top of events in the short session: Some of the legislators on hand Wednesday talked about committee meetings where they're handed complicated amendments to bills and are expected to absorb those new details in a matter of minutes while also attending to other matters.
Despite the excellent reasons why it makes sense to keep the shorter sessions tightly focused, that hasn't been happening: Increasingly, the shorter sessions have been the launching pads for big policy decisions that really need the time and attention they would get in a longer session. This session's carbon cap-and-trade bills are excellent examples.
But once the gavel falls to start even a shorter session, it's hard to put limits on legislators. And, certainly, the tactics being used by Oregon legislative leaders to keep a tight rein on the short sessions don't seem to be getting the job done. So, in the spirit of The Oregon Way, here are a few tongue-in-cheek suggestions for legislators to consider. (For easy identification, I've given each of the proposals a catchy name.)
• Minimum pages: Legislators can introduce as many bills as they'd like in the short session, but the combined number of pages in those bills cannot exceed 20. Legislators who need additional pages must negotiate trades with legislators who won't be needing all of their 20 pages.
• Cap and trade: Legislators can introduce two bills at no charge in the short session. To introduce a third bill will require a payment to the state treasury of $500. To introduce a fourth bill will require a payment of $1 billion to the state treasury. Fourth-bill revenue will be earmarked to help pay down the state's unfunded liability in its pension fund. A couple dozen of these fourth bills should mop up the state's pension problems.
• If you can't stand the heat, get out of the hot tub: The first markup session on any short-session legislation must be held in a hot tub. If the pages get soggy, the bill must wait for the longer session to allow adequate time to dry. This would have the added benefit of easing legislators' aching muscles, although study will be required to determine if the Capitol building can handle the additional humidity along with all that hot air. (mm)