Voters may get chance to end Dems’ abuse of ‘emergency clause’

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by Richard F. LaMountain

In the 2015 legislative session, majority Democrats denied Oregonians their right to refer many bills to a public vote — almost certainly, in at least some instances, because they feared voters would reject those bills if given the chance.  Here’s the story of one such bill — and of how voters, in 2016, might get an opportunity to stem future such lawmaking abuse.

Senate Bill 932, which was approved by the House and Senate in early July and currently awaits Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, credentials illegal-immigrant college students to compete with U.S. citizens for taxpayer-funded Oregon Opportunity Grants.  This is objectionable enough: Plenty of Oregonians, as we’ll see, went on record last year as opposing state-government benefits for foreigners here illegally.

But there’s more: SB 932’s sponsors saddled the bill with an “emergency clause” — and with the evident intent of assuring that voters wouldn’t again get the chance to take such firm official stand against illegal immigration.

The Oregon constitution stipulates that “no act shall take effect until ninety days from the end of the session at which the same shall have been passed, except in case of emergency; which emergency shall be declared in . . . the law.”  Such declaration, known as the “emergency clause,” speeds a bill’s enactment into law.  Though, in recent years, few bills containing the clause have addressed true emergencies, its use is common: according to Lewis and Clark senior lecturer emerita Chana Cox, in the 2015 session 46 percent of bills (as of early June) contained an emergency clause.  Among those that passed: House Bill 2177, which automatically registers as voters all citizens holding Oregon driver licenses, and SB 941, which expands background checks on people transferring guns.  SB 932’s emergency clause declares the bill effective “on its passage” — which means it will become law the moment Brown signs it.

What’s the official reason for SB 932’s emergency clause?  So its intended beneficiaries, bill sponsor Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) told Eugene’s Register-Guard last spring, can (in the newspaper’s words) “access opportunity grants in the coming school year.”

But here’s the rub: Absent a successful referral — for which, we’ll see, there is a high bar — those beneficiaries would have been able to seek and win grants even if SB 932 hadn’t had an emergency clause.  For the next Oregon Opportunity Grants that will be available — for the school year of 2016-17 — the state government’s Office of Student Access and Completion urges interested parties to submit their applications as soon after January 1, 2016 as possible.  Had, then, Dembrow forsworn the emergency clause, and in SB 932’s text merely stipulated that the bill take effect no fewer than 90 days from the end of the session (which will be early October), its beneficiaries still would have had ample time — some two-and-a-half months — to have prepared and submitted their applications within OSAC’s suggested time frame.  (For those who would argue that SB 932 needed the emergency clause because sessions’ adjournment dates are never certain, consider: In the past 130 years no session has extended beyond late August, and most recent sessions have concluded by early July.)

Might, then, there have been an unspoken reason for SB 932’s emergency clause?

Perhaps.  When a bill contains an emergency clause, once signed it is not merely sped into law: the clause also forecloses Oregonians’ ability to try to give their fellow citizens the chance to approve or disapprove it via referendum.

The reason?  To refer a bill to voters, its opponents must engage in a constitutionally-stipulated and time-consuming process: collect the signatures of registered voters numbering at least 4 percent of the votes cast for governor in the last election.  This must be done within 90 days of a legislative session’s end — not coincidentally, the same length of time it takes bills that don’t have emergency clauses to become law.  If a bill’s opponents collect the requisite signatures, the bill, rather than become law after 90 days, remains unenacted until after the referendum vote, which affirms or rejects it as law.  But when an emergency clause stipulates that a bill, once signed, becomes law immediately, it forecloses the referendum possibility.

Could this have been the real reason for SB 932’s emergency clause?

Consider: In spring 2013, the legislature approved and Gov. John Kitzhaber signed SB 833, which would have authorized driver cards for illegal immigrants.  But the bill’s opponents collected sufficient signatures to refer it to the November 2014 ballot, at which voters rejected it.  The magnitude of that rejection — the margin was almost two-to-one — made clear: the vote transcended the issue of driver cards to constitute a general mandate against state-government policies that offer benefits to illegal immigrants.

Even after voters’ annihilation of driver cards, however, Oregon’s legislative Democrats remain virtually unanimous in their support of illegal-immigrant “rights.”  Case in point: A recent letter to Salem’s Statesman Journal newspaper, signed by all 35 House Democrats, contended that “keeping our state a great place to live” will require that all Oregon residents are “treated equally” regardless “of their . . . citizenship status.”

So it is reasonable to ask: Was an emergency clause written into SB 932 with the specific intent of keeping it from being referred to voters and, potentially, meeting the same fate as illegal-immigrant driver cards?

Only Sen. Dembrow and SB 932’s co-sponsors can answer that question.  Whatever their answer would be, however, the bill’s story illustrates the need to rein in the emergency clause’s future use.

For the November 2016 ballot, a measure has been filed to do just that.  If passed by voters, the “No More Fake Emergencies Act” — Initiative No. 49 — would enact a constitutional amendment that would require most bills containing emergency clauses to receive the votes of two-thirds of the members of each the House and the Senate to pass.  This would restrict legislators’ ability to use the emergency clause to thwart potential referenda of bills they believe would be defeated if put to popular vote — a cynical, antidemocratic practice that poisons public confidence in the lawmaking process and, indeed, perverts the relationship between legislators and the Oregonians who elect them.

To reach the ballot, by July 2016 Initiative No. 49 will need the signatures of more than 117,000 registered voters.  In days to come, information will be made available on how to print and sign an online petition to help qualify the initiative — and in doing so to help restore the voice of the citizen, as manifested in the referendum, to its preeminent place in Oregon’s representative democracy.

Richard F. LaMountain, a former vice president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, served as a chief petitioner of the 2014 referendum via which Oregon voters rejected the 2013 bill that sought to grant driver cards to illegal immigrants.