Election Oregon Legislature (copy) (copy) (copy)

The golden pioneer statue standing atop the Capitol rotunda in Salem is silhouetted by the sun breaking through fog.

A pair of Oregon legislators said this week that they plan to introduce, in this year's session, bills intended to reduce carbon emissions statewide through a so-called "cap and invest" model.

The bills establish a price per ton of emissions for the largest greenhouse gas producers in the state. They also include provisions to take those proceeds and invest them in projects to reduce pollution.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, is leading the effort in the Senate. Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, will introduce an identical bill in the House.

In a press release, Dembrow said the idea is not just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; the legislation (dubbed collectively the Clean Energy Jobs Bill) also aims to create jobs in "economically distressed communities across Oregon."

Now, the Clean Energy Jobs Bill may well turn out to be a terrific piece of legislation.

But it has no business being considered in a short session of the Legislature. It's a significant enough piece of legislation, with enough far-reaching ramifications, that it requires the fuller examination it would receive in the longer legislative sessions held in odd-numbered years.

To that end, it might be timely to review exactly what these shorter legislative sessions, held in even-numbered years, were intended to do:

Ballot Measure 71, which voters handily approved in 2010, gave the green light to annual legislative sessions; before then, legislators met every two years. More than two-thirds of Oregon voters understood that state government had become such a complicated operation that legislators couldn't keep an eye on it by meeting every other year. But many of those same voters worried about the havoc that could result if the Legislature held lengthy sessions each year.

Measure 71 eased those fears by striking this bargain: 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.

By contrast, the sessions set for odd-numbered years, such as the one that starts next month, were intended mostly 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.

There's good reason for that: A 35-day session does not allow sufficient time for big ideas to get the full hearing they deserve, let alone for the public to participate in any meaningful way.

Nevertheless, the 2016 short session featured two big pieces of legislation that should have been considered in the longer session: a bill requiring power companies to eliminate coal-fired resources from their power supply and another measure to increase the state's minimum wage.

To be fair, both Dembrow and Helm held public meetings with various stakeholders last summer and fall. But that is not the same thing as subjecting an actual bill to the give-and-take and public examination that only a longer legislative session can provide. And if Dembrow and Helm believed their work had smoothed the road to passage next month, they might have miscalculated: Industry and business groups were quick to pan the proposal.

If the Legislature really wants to sink its teeth into some tough issues this session, allow us to suggest a couple of alternatives: Perhaps legislators could make some headway at easing the problems posed by the unfunded liability in the state's public pension system. Any progress at all on that issue — even a small step or two — would be welcome. And if voters reject Measure 101 in a couple of weeks, legislators may find their time occupied with efforts to fill a $300 million hole in the state's Medicaid budget.

Overall, legislators would do well to remember the promises made to voters in Ballot Measure 71 and keep these short sessions as quick and to-the-point as possible. (mm)

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