A case for annual sessions

By Gary Wilhelms,

During 2005-2006, thirty-two Oregonians worked for fifteen months as members of the Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature to review the operations and structure of our Legislature. The Commission’s final report was entitled “A Blueprint for a 21st Century Legislature.” To list the changes that have occurred in our state over the past century would be a waste of space in this short message. You can make your own list. Our Legislature has changed, too. We’ve built bigger buildings, hired more staff, bought lots of technology, established more committees, and stayed in session longer. What we have not done is make any significant changes in the Legislature’s structure and basic operation.

In their report, the Commission proposed a lengthy list of recommendations aimed at improving the Legislature’s efficiency. There was broad, not unanimous, agreement among Commission members that the Legislature should move to annual legislative sessions. (Of the fifty state legislatures, forty-four currently meet annually.) The Commission’s recommendation, however, was to first experiment with annual sessions, determining their desirability, and then, if appropriate, to move forward seeking Oregonians’ approval of the necessary Constitutional Amendment. That is what the Legislature has done. The Constitutional Amendment will be on this November’s General Election ballot. Oregon voters will ultimately get to decide. Frankly, the arguments against annual sessions are old hat. Why is allowing the Legislature to meet more often a good idea? As we move into the 21st century, we need to give the Legislature a fair shot at improving their operational efficiency. The fact is that until the Legislature began its annual session experiment in 2007, the previous five regular sessions (1997-2005) averaged 197 days. If special session days were added, the average would be even longer. The Constitutional Amendment contains a 160 day limit for the odd-year session and a 35 day limit for the even-year session for a total of 195 days. That’s less time in session, and that’s a limit, not a requirement. They could very well finish their work earlier. The Legislature would not be meeting more than they already are and would likely be meeting less.

The Commission’s annual session recommendation was just one piece of a much broader set of related recommendations dealing with legislative structure, operations and timing. Together, these recommendations would improve the Legislature’s flexibility, responsiveness and efficiency, all of which are necessary for a “21st Century Legislature.”