Legislature 2 (copy)

Oregon labor unions are hoping the Democrats' big majorities in both the state House and Senate could lead to a pro-worker agenda for the 2019 legislative session.

A couple of quick notes about items that have recently attracted attention in the Oregon Legislature:

First, Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick is exactly right about the reasons why legislators should consider a pay increase for themselves. But there's a problem: The money to do that isn't available, unless someone finds a couple of million stashed away in the back of somebody's desk — and, even then, the unexpected windfall likely would be better spent to shore up other areas in need of cash.

With that said, though, it would be a mistake to simply dismiss Burdick's concerns, but this will not be the session in which legislators vote themselves a pay raise.

Burdick's argument is that the relatively low pay legislators receive doesn't amount to a living wage, and that limits the type of people who can serve. The result is a Legislature that is filled with retirees or independently wealthy representatives — or, people who have enough flexibility in their workplaces that they can afford to essentially take six months off every couple of years.

"We're a diverse state, we need a diverse Legislature," Burdick told Oregon Public Broadcasting. "Because of the low pay, we are automatically screening out people who really should be represented here."

Legislators now make $31,200, plus an extra $149 a day when the Legislature is in session. Serving in the Legislature amounts to a full-time job, even if we like to think otherwise. And, as Burdick points out, many county and city officials in Oregon make considerably more money. 

Still, Burdick's proposal, to boost legislative pay by 63 percent to more than $60,000 a year, isn't likely to get much traction, coming as it does in the middle of a session where legislative budget writers have asked almost every part of state government to prepare for cutbacks. That $60,000 would make Oregon legislators among the best-paid in the nation for this type of legislative assembly, which just adds to the difficulties facing the proposal.

In addition, the "optics" (as political insiders like to say) are simply horrible, considering that the proposal is coming just a few weeks after a 28 percent legislative pay raise went into effect. Now, to be fair, legislators didn't initiate that pay increase, which was tied to collective bargaining agreements that affected nearly 40,000 state employees. Still, it's not entirely clear where the state will find the estimated $1.6 million every two years to cover the tab for that increase.

Oregon residents pride themselves on having a citizen Legislature — but the fact is that our assembly doesn't really reflect the state's population. It's not a bad idea to think about ways to encourage a more diverse Legislature, as long as we understand that some of those ideas will come with a price tag that the state is ill-equipped to pay.

Here's the other item that caught our eye: We were fascinated to read of Sen. Fred Girod's efforts to pass a measure, Senate Concurrent Resolution 12, which asks the Legislature to commemorate and express regret for a particularly painful bit of Oregon history: The Modoc War of 1872-73, during which about 50 Modoc Indians fended off a thousand U.S. Army soldiers in a remote area near the California border. The battle that ended the standoff, the Battle of Dry Lake in May 1873, was a decisive defeat for the Modocs. Four eventually were executed for war crimes. Remaining members of the tribe were herded into rail cars and sent as prisoners of war to Oklahoma, then known as Indian Territory.

Girod, a Republican from Stayton who represents a district that includes part of Linn County, said a 2011 documentary on Oregon Public Broadcasting opened his eyes to this history. He's hoping the resolution, which was approved this week by a Senate committee, will help open more eyes across the state. It's a worthy goal, and a worthwhile piece of legislation from the senator. (mm)

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