Oregon voters on Tuesday approved a collection of taxes to fund health care. The vote freed lawmakers from the burden of addressing the issue during next month’s short session, thereby liberating them to remind voters, once again, what a mistake it was to create annual legislative sessions in the first place. Buckle up for the Carbon Cap Rocket Ride, which will see legislators try to create sweeping fiscal policy in just over a month.
This surely isn’t what most voters hoped to achieve back in 2010, when they approved Measure 71 by a wide margin. Directing lawmakers to meet every year rather than every other year, the argument went, would allow for better, more responsive, budgeting. Such reasoning was particularly compelling during the depths of the Great Recession, which demonstrated, as the Oregon Education Association argued in the voters’ pamphlet, that “our economic situation can change quickly, putting Oregon’s critical services at risk.”
The measure established long sessions in odd-numbered years, during which lawmakers would spend up to 160 calendar days at work. And it established short sessions in even-numbered years, during which they’d spend up to 35 days at work. Sweeping policy changes were understood to be the province of long sessions, which allowed plenty of time for debate and public scrutiny.
Naturally, this didn’t work as planned. Exhibit A is the sweeping and contentious “coal to clean” legislation that dominated the 2016 short session. The bill, which aimed to reduce the amount of coal used to generate Oregon’s electricity, was the product of pre-session negotiations between environmental groups and utilities. So tightly was the process controlled that Gov. Kate Brown temporarily muzzled members of the Oregon Public Utility Commission, some of whom had significant concerns about the proposal. In the end, sweeping energy legislation was hustled through a short session with as little public warning and scrutiny as possible.
Emboldened, perhaps, by the outcome of the last short session, a number of lawmakers would like to take up legislation next month that would create a system for capping carbon emissions. Why must something this sweeping and complex be done during a session that lasts roughly a month? Because, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, told The Oregonian, “the longer we wait, the steeper the declines in the cap have to be” to meet the state’s carbon-reduction goals.
Backers of 2016’s “coal to clean” legislation had a rationale for misusing the short session, too. Quick action was needed, they argued, in order to forestall a promised ballot initiative that could prove to be even more dramatic. You can bet that lawmakers who want to misuse the 2020 short session for their pet policy behemoth will concoct a flimsy rationale, too.
There’s nothing novel about this tactic. Lawmakers have come to think nothing of claiming fake emergencies to suit their purposes, as evidenced by the huge number of bills introduced every session with “emergency clauses,” which allow laws to go into effect immediately and thwart people who’d like to put them before voters. Among the “emergency” laws enacted last year is Senate Bill 146, which designates the third Saturday every March as Cherry Blossom Day in Salem. If the Legislature were only half as good at preventing real emergencies as it is at concocting fake ones, the budget crisis that gave rise to Measure 101 wouldn’t have occurred at all.
Nonetheless, here we are. Oregon now has short sessions every other year that will continue to be abused by lawmakers who claim one emergency or another to justify a greased-rail legislative journey for proposals whose complexity and scope argue for careful deliberation and unhurried public scrutiny. Democrats are particularly at fault for this behavior now only because they control the Legislature and the governor’s office. If Republicans were in control, you can be sure they’d be doing exactly the same thing.
But what’s to be done? Now that they can do pretty much whatever they want every year, lawmakers aren’t likely to say, “oops! Let’s go back to biennial sessions.” Barring that, the best solution might well be a bigger dose of the problem. Oregon would be better off if short sessions were much less short, even if that meant the Legislature met for a full-length session every calendar year. That prospect might be appalling to a lot of people, and understandably so. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine an arrangement less conducive to good policymaking than the short-session charade Oregon has now.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.