Short session: Political games, legislation behind closed doors

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

few legislators knew that the budgets include about $350 million in increased compensation for all public employees

Your Oregon Legislature adjourned last Friday, March 7th. It completed a disorderly and disappointing 35 day legislative session that is not working out as voters were promised.

Voters were asked by the Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment to authorize annual legislative sessions. Oregon voters adopted that amendment in 2010. The new, constitutionally approved sessions include a five month session held in odd numbered years and a 35 day session during even numbered years.

The need for the short session was portrayed to voters as a way to make needed adjustments to the budgets, deal with emergencies, take advantage of short term opportunities, and to make consensus policy changes.

I opposed the creation of annul legislative sessions because I believe your Legislature is unable to constrain itself to these stated goals.

First and foremost, I was concerned that the short sessions would be used as a political venue to influence elections by positioning legislators to make votes that are unpopular in their districts. This is usually accomplished by inserting a “poison pill” in otherwise needed legislation. The legislator is then attacked by his or her political base if voting yes and attacked by the media and political opponents if voting no.

Further, I was worried that the short sessions would be viewed by some legislators as a chance to adopt major policy changes, with very limited opportunity for public participation. Finally, the short sessions would provide both the opportunity and the excuse to escalate state government spending.

Unfortunately, the majority party has proven all of these concerns to be well founded. They made yeoman effort during the 2014 session to adopt major changes in public policy, increase spending, exclude public participation in the making of new laws, and even attempted to short circuit the peoples’ constitutional right to review legislative work. The introduction of several “policy” bills appeared to be only for the purpose of creating political positioning for the fall elections.

Budgets were adjusted authorizing the spending of virtually all but $150 million of the State income that is estimated to be received over the balance of the current two year budget period. The budgets adopted during the 2013 session already approved spending most of the savings accumulated during the previous budget cycle. The reserve amount is now reduced to less than eight tenths of one percent of the expected general fund and lottery revenue for the next sixteen months. Either a one percent downturn in the economy, or a one percent miscalculation in projected income, could place the state budgets in deficit.

Oregon taxpayers had little, if any, opportunity to participate in determining either how much of their tax-dollars will be spent, or in deciding for what purpose their money will be spent. Virtually all of the budget decisions were adopted after the Legislature went on one-hour posting notice.

This means that a bill may be scheduled for a public hearing, to be significantly amended or to be scheduled for a committee vote with only one hour notice to the public and other lawmakers. Obviously, this procedure fundamentally eliminates the opportunity for the public to weigh-in on budget matters. In fact, about 80 of Oregon’s 90 legislators were provided less than 24 hours to examine several hundred pages of complex budget bills, before being required to vote on them.

For instance, few legislators knew that the budgets include about $350 million in increased compensation for all public employees that were subject to last summer’s state labor negotiations. By my calculations, that pay increase will automatically escalate to nearly three quarters of a billion dollars for the 2015-17 budget period. I could not find where that enormous roll-up cost was even discussed in the budget bills.

Many major policy ideas that failed to be enacted during the 2013 “long session” were brought back for another try.

  • Efforts to resurrect the fatally flawed Columbia River Crossing I-5 Bridge rightfully fizzled.
  • Senators Proznaski and Burdick orchestrated yet another failed attempt to curtail our constitutionally guaranteed right to possess and bear firearms.
  • Adoption of Governor Kitzhaber’s signature Low Carbon fuel Standard, that would so damage Oregon’s business economy, was once again beaten back.
  • Likewise, unending efforts to place useless and damaging regulations on allegedly potentially toxic materials were once again defeated.
  • State Treasurer Ted Wheeler’s ongoing attempt to create a new agency to manage the investment of nearly $90 billion of state taxpayer money, with literally no legislative oversight, was rejected on the last day of the session.
  • A new effort to refer a measure to the voters to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana died due to lack of support in the Senate.
  • An arrogant attempt by House Democrat leadership to rewrite the ballot title for the referral of the law to create an Oregon driver card for undocumented aliens passed the House but was stopped in the Senate.

Finally, the disgraceful CY PRES bill received a much deserved death on the Senate floor.

  • The measure created an outright gift to class action plaintiff attorneys, by eliminating most of the court procedure governing Oregon class action lawsuits and replacing it …with nothing. The near certain result would have been a national migration of class action lawsuits seeking Oregon judges that are willing to create court procedures favorable to their clients. It had the potential to create a “cottage industry” for filing class action lawsuits in this state. We might as well of been saying “Ya’all come to Oregon to shop for a judge who is sympathetic to your cause”.
  • The bill also would have diverted unclaimed awards made to members of a class action settlement to an endowment for Legal Aid. There is certainly a constitutional question whether money, either adjudicated by the court or directed by a settlement agreement to be received by an aggrieved member of the class, can be summarily given to someone else. Of course, the money would only be transferred to Legal Aid to be used for “humanitarian” purposes after a percentage was claimed by plaintiff lawyers.
  • It was a masterfully written political work of art. The bill was designed to pit the interests of the “malevolent” world of business, against the “humanitarian service” of Legal Aid to indigent people.
  • The bill was created to be an open ended political dare to anyone who had the courage to vote against this gift to plaintiff attorneys. I am proud to be one of the 15 Senators who took the dare and voted NO!

On the other hand, a number of good ideas were enacted into law with virtual consensus votes.

  • The telecommunications 9-1-1 tax was extended to point of sale for prepaid telephone cards creating much needed funding for the 9-1-1 program.
  • A bill was adopted to allow employers to give preference to hiring veterans, disabled veterans and spouses of deceased veterans.
  • Other bills were enacted giving preferences to veterans for access to post-secondary education and financial aid.
  • A common sense bill was passed that allows the reuse of previously used wheel chairs, adjustable beds and other durable goods.
  • Strong bipartisan majorities enacted the ability for cities and counties to place a moratorium on licensing “medical marijuana dispensaries”.
  • Finally, $200 million in bonding authority was issued to Oregon Health Sciences University to help match the incredibly generous half billion dollar challenge grant by Phil and Penny Knight. That grant will help expand OHSU’s Knight Cancer Research facility to a world class cancer research center. It will also accelerate and help to pay for OHSU’s rural health clinic expansion into Klamath Falls.

If appropriately limited, the short session could be a valuable asset for Oregonians. As currently practiced, it is being used to enact laws behind closed doors without the benefit of public knowledge, input or participation. Worse, the primary function of the 2014 short session devolved into a blunt instrument used to position candidates for the creation of political advertising for the fall elections.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls