Thoughts on the short session

In 2010, Oregon voters approved a Constitutional amendment allowing annual legislative sessions. Until 2012 the state legislature met in odd-numbered years. The 2010 measure was touted as tool for the legislature to address budget issues (this was during the height of the Great Recession) and address any legislative ‘emergencies.’

Since the legislature started meeting in even-numbered years, the sessions have morphed into a free-for-all. Republican lawmakers complain that the even-year sessions have become unruly with consequential new laws pushed through without adequate time for the public to have its say.

The short session beginning next week is shaping up to be more of the same. The state’s biennial budget is nary mentioned. The main action will center on another attempt at climate change legislation, primarily as a so-called cap and trade program.

Under a cap-and-trade system, carbon emissions are capped at a certain level and companies can earn credits for reducing their output below that threshold. The credits can then be sold to other firms that exceed it.

A similar House bill passed in 2018. Once it arrived in the other chamber, 11 Senate Republicans walked out, denying a quorum. The tactic worked and the bill died. The 2020 version of the climate change legislation is expected to be just as contentious. 

Though the short session was designed to address budget issues and emergencies, there are a number of bills waiting to be introduced that are neither. Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer wants to introduce a bill to send to voters a measure to undo the Constitutional amendment that allowed even-numbered year legislative sessions. She is right, especially if any bill on any subject can be introduced in the short session.

There are plenty of proposed bills to raise one’s blood pressure. One of the problems with a short session is that often there is a very short window for the public to be engaged, especially if they live hours from the Capitol and can’t get to Salem in time to testify for or against a bill. Of course, that is by design. If nobody speaks against a bill, it can pass, especially with a supermajority, with hardly a word heard from the public.

State representatives and senators are doing the people’s business, but not when they give the people scant chance to respond and testify. Too often legislation is something done to the people rather than for the people.

The corridors of the capitol are filled with lobbyists; they are paid by their clients to be there, speak to lawmakers and persuade them to support their point of view. It is difficult for the average citizen to do the same. Where do they start? How do they do it?

We think organizations, such as Chambers of Commerce, service clubs houses of worship and other groups, should establish tutorials or classes that would teach how to get involved with the legislative process. Tutorials can teach how to write effective letters to lawmakers. Not just to own representative or senator but also those who chair committees that hold hearings.

Organizations should also have classes on how to testify before a committee. That is a scary prospect for most people, speaking in public before powerful politicians. Lesson number one: politicians are just people. All a citizen needs is the interest time and desire.

Barring a personal trip to the capitol, people have three powerful tools at their disposal: phone calls to legislators, letters or emails. A lawmaker’s attention will be grabbed if their office is inundated with messages. Calls, letters and emails will have more impact if they are polite and rational. Everyone responds better to courtesy than rants and anger.

The people’s business is too important to be conducted without input from the people themselves.