Rep. Richardson on Corrupting Power

Power Has Corrupted the Legislative Process

Hopefully, my stint in the Legislative minority will be brief, but it has provided me new perspective. I have seen in action the pervasive principle of “Unrighteous Dominion.” In essence, this principle states that most people when they gain any amount of power, will soon begin to use their power for their own benefit and to the detriment of others. I am sad to report this principle is thriving in our legislature.

For instance, it makes good sense when creating laws to require safeguards that ensure open, public hearings and thorough consideration of facts and opinions. Through such a process public input can be received and due consideration can be given to all opinions.

In the Oregon Legislature such safeguards historically have been assured by the committee process. In the committee process, proposed legislation is assigned to a committee specializing in the relevant subject matter. Notice of public hearings is posted well in advance so that those interested can come, sign a list and testify to the committee on the pros and cons of the proposed legislation. In addition to public testimony, the committee often invites expert testimony to instruct committee members on the subject matter of the legislation. Many times opposing experts will testify, thus enabling the committee members to become well-informed before deciding whether or not to pass the proposed law. Many times information learned during the committee hearings results in amendments being made to clarify wording and improve the quality and consequences of the proposed law. Through the committee process, the committee legislators become knowledgeable about the content of proposed laws they consider. Ultimately, a decision is made on whether or not the proposed Bill should move out of committee. If the Committee’s Chair wants to pass the proposed Bill out of the committee, a Work Session is scheduled and a vote is taken. If the bill is supported by a majority of committee members, it is sent to the House floor for debate and a vote by the 60 elected State Representatives. If two or more committee members strongly oppose the Bill, they can file a “Minority Report,” which enables them to also send to the House floor the minority’s draft of how they believe the Bill should be worded. Then both versions are debated and the members of the House vote on which, if either, version to “pass” and send to the Senate for its consideration. The entire process is then repeated in a Senate committee.

The committee process requires time and effort, but it successfully weeds out most bad legislation. It also assists those legislators who serve on other House committees. They give the same level of time and consideration to bills in their own committees, and since there are 15 House committees, they must trust their colleagues on the other committees to assure proposed legislation has been thoroughly and carefully considered before allowing it to be sent to the House floor for a vote.

Unfortunately, such dedication to an open, honest and public process is being violated repeatedly by House leadership this session.

For example, consider House Bill 3535. This bill would dedicate 1% of Oregon’s General Fund revenues to the Oregon State Police Patrol Division. House Bill 3535 has 51 legislators co-sponsoring it, including 17 Democrats. It is truly a bi-partisan bill that would ensure dedicated funding for 24/7 coverage of Oregon’s highways by OSP Troopers. Since it would not become law until after this session ends, HB 3535 would have no effect on the 2007-09 budget. Notwithstanding the lack of any affect on the budget, House leadership has moved HB 3535 and several other non-budget Bills to the Ways and Means committee, where they can be quietly pigeon-holed. The House leaders have made it clear to the minority Republicans that to have 24/7 OSP Troopers will require a tax increase to pay for them. Twice the House Republicans have made parliamentary motions on the House floor to bring HB 3535 out of committee to a floor vote; both times those Motions were defeated by a party-line vote.

Another example of how open, public debate is being circumvented by moving a non-budget bill to a Ways and Means sub-committee is House Bill 3540-B. As you may recall, HB 3540-B is the flawed response to Measure 37 that was the subject of a previous newsletter.

Regardless of how you voted on Measure 37, it is the law and most of us would agree it is vitally important for this Legislative session to clarify the costs and confusion surrounding its implementation. With so many Oregonians affected in one way or another by the consequences of Measure 37, one would expect House Bill 3540-B to be widely debated and carefully and openly considered at every stage of its deliberations. Regretfully, the opposite has been the case.

There have been no public hearings on the many complex amendments to this important legislation. There has been no opposing testimony allowed on the catastrophic consequences HB 3540-B will have on average elderly citizens who have spent their life savings trying for the past two years to overcome city, county and state hurdles to their claims. To prevent HB 3540-B from receiving public attention or testimony, HB 3540-B has been neatly tucked away in the Ways and Means Natural Resources Subcommittee. On May 30, 2007, the subcommittee received its marching orders and amended HB 3540-B with more than 300 lines of changes to the underlying bill. Although emailed to the committee members after hours the night before, this Ways and Means Subcommittee members were not handed a copy of this complex, eleven page amendment until thirty minutes before the work session meeting began.

According to plan, the HB 3540—B31 amendments were passed, not by a thoroughly prepared and knowledgeable Land Use Committee, but by a Ways and Means subcommittee–without knowledge of the subject, without public hearings, and without even having read the amendments. These important amendments were passed by the Democrats on a straight, party-line vote over the objections of the Senate and House Republicans. The charade was well-orchestrated, but subterfuge comes with a cost. At a time when Oregon citizens are highly suspicious of their government and its leaders, the exercise of blatant unrighteous dominion further fuels the flames of distrust.

The key to honest, open government is having legislators and leaders who avoid the very appearance of subterfuge, subversion and self-dealing. Using the committee process as it is intended helps keep the legislative process transparent and above suspicion. Since sending non-budget bills to Ways and Means may continue, today I proposed a change in the House Rules that would require public hearings and input on any non-budget-related amendments. My amendment to House Rule 8.22 is a small, yet important step to keeping politics out of the policy making process in the Oregon legislature. The proposed Rule amendment was read on the House floor today and has been assigned to the House Committee on Elections, Ethics and Rules, where it will, hopefully, receive open and objective consideration.

Dennis Richardson