Soon enough, the Oregon Legislature will be awash in bills addressing some of the state’s biggest challenges, most of which have big dollar signs attached to them. But life in the House and Senate isn’t just tax policy, PERS reform and budget shortfalls. No matter how busy lawmakers get, there’s always time for critters.

Among the bills considered two years ago, for instance, is one that would have outlawed the declawing of cats. It died, but not without vigorous debate and a good deal of public interest. Two years before that, the Legislature banned “equine tripping” at rodeos. Remember that?

This year is no different. Among the hundreds of bills introduced for consideration are those that would designate an official state horse (Kiger mustang) and an official state dog (the border collie or pound pup, take your pick). Other bills would make horse “soring” a crime. The practice involves the infliction of pain to change an animal’s gait. And there are — as there always are — several bills that would relax Oregon’s ban on the hunting of cougars with dogs.

Then there’s Senate Bill 556, which is aimed at people who drive with dogs in their laps. You know who you are. Anyone who bonds with his pet in this fashion would be guilty of a Class D traffic violation, for which he could be fined the equivalent of several bags of puppy chow.

The bill’s sponsor is Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, who says the issue was brought to his attention by a concerned constituent. Hansell likens lap-dog driving to another form of distracted driving, yapping on a phone, already prohibited by law. SB 556 is the result.

Hansell offers no statistical evidence of the perils of driving with the family dog between you and the steering wheel, but common sense suggests it’s probably not a great idea. Dogs can behave unpredictably, and the consequences of having a pet in your lap when your airbag deploys are likely to be bad for both of you.

In any case, Hansell notes, Oregon wouldn’t be the first state to adopt such a ban. Hawaii has one, he says, and the practice is included within umbrella distracted-driving laws in at least four other states: Arizona, Connecticut, Maine and New Jersey.

But does all of this argue for a specific prohibition here? Maybe, maybe not. A similar bill, sponsored by Portland Democrat Ginny Burdick, received a committee hearing in 2011 and promptly fizzled. Meanwhile, existing law isn’t exactly toothless. Depending upon the circumstances, someone driving with a dog in his lap could be cited for careless driving, says Capt. Bill Fugate, public information officer for the Oregon State Police.

The question legislators will have to answer is whether the behavior covered by SB 556, while probably dumb, is dangerous enough to have its own special place in the lawbooks — accompanied by a fine of roughly $100. That question isn’t as easy to answer as a lot of people on either side of the debate might like, as the fate of Sen. Burdick’s 2011 bill suggests.

As for Hansell, he says he’s interested primarily in forcing a conversation. No problem there, but his conversation-starter bill does illustrate the importance of even the little things lawmakers do. Sure, it’s easy to play up the behavior SB 556 targets for laughs and to suggest that legislation involving animals is somehow trivial. By, you know, using words like “critters.”

But consider some numbers. Citing a survey, an AAA lobbyist who testified in support of Burdick’s 2011 bill said that one-fifth of drivers who bring their pets into their vehicles with them allow them to sit on their laps. That’s a whole lot of dogs behind the wheel, and therefore a whole lot of potential fines.

And the fine, of about $100, isn’t trivial. The Legislature is likely to consider a transportation package this year, which will undoubtedly feature a hike in the gas tax. The package, and especially the tax, will receive heated debate. Assuming a tax hike of 10 cents per gallon, though, you’d have to drive 25,000 miles in a car that gets 25 miles per gallon to pay as much in additional gas taxes as you would to cover a single $100 fine for letting Fido sit in the wrong seat.

My purpose in writing about SB 556 is not to support or oppose it, but, instead, to illustrate the fact that even relatively obscure pieces of legislation can have meaningful effects on Oregonians. Such debates may not get the attention, or newspaper coverage, that those devoted to budgetary matters, tax policy and the handful of other “big” issues receive this session. And that’s appropriate. But they do matter, and I’ll use my column over the next several months to write not only about the Legislature’s handling of high-profile matters, but also about the progress of smaller-bore bills that promise to affect Oregonians in noteworthy ways.

In the meantime, anyone who’d like to weigh in on SB 556 can do so by emailing Hansell’s office at Sen.BillHansell@state.or.us.

— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.

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