Improving Citizen Access to the Oregon Legislature

Are Oregon citizens able to engage with the legislature in a meaningful way? The flurry of bills and amendments can be overwhelming for a professional lobbyist, so it is easy to understand why a citizen or group of volunteer citizens want to throw up their hands.

Tracking a bill in the legislature would seem to be relatively easy with access to the internet. But, as many folks are finding out, it isn’t quite that easy. Once a hearing is scheduled for a bill, a person may have to commute hundreds of miles to Salem to testify. Written testimony can and should be provided on a bill, but actually being present seems to give more deference to an argument. Then, amendments often have been added to the bill that weren’t available on the web, and a citizen’s comments might no longer be pertinent. In fact, with cutoffs approaching, committee members often haven’t even seen amendments before they arrive at the hearing.

Many new citizen activist groups are recognizing that for them to be effective at the legislature, they must have someone at the Capitol on a daily basis monitoring activities. Even then, it is difficult to be effective. Small unofficial workgroups of lobbyists may be working on new language for bills that you may or may not be invited to participate in. This can result in amendments being introduced as “compromise language,” even though interested private citizens never saw the language.

The Oregon legislature could be more accessible to the average citizen. Here are few ideas that could make great strides in that direction:

• Establish video conference areas around the state for citizens to provide testimony. This is currently being done by the Redistricting Committee, so it is possible. Facilities with this technology already exist at most college facilities throughout the state, so the infrastructure need would be limited.

• Require all amendments to be posted electronically 24 hours before they can be considered in a work session, and the work session must open a public hearing for comments on those amendments.

• The number of bills a legislator can introduce should be further limited to three, as well as those introduced on behalf of agencies. However, this has to be well thought-out. The last thing that should be encouraged is large omnibus bills with very general relating clauses.

These changes won’t eliminate the power of professional lobbyists, but they would begin to create a more accessible process for citizens. As legislators contemplate rules by which to conduct business at the beginning of each session, they not only should consider how to make the session most productive for the body, but also how to make their process more conducive to citizen participation.

Karla Kay Edwards is Rural Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She has held positions of leadership in numerous organizations focusing on agricultural and rural industries and issues, including the Fresno (California) Farm Bureau, Washington Cattlemen’s Association and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.