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Cutting the knot

Steens MountainThe hearing room, for public testimony on what’s being called “the Framework” on Measure 37 renovation, was packed with people, so many that not even all those who came to testify were able to get a seat there. So a second room was open, complete with big-screen video and pretty good sound, and it filled. And so did a third. Your scribe watched the proceedings from a mostly-full fourth room.

Measure 37 excites a lot of interest.

Most of the people who testified, and even most of those who simply showed up, were easily distinguishable, because most of them wore one of two types of adhesive shirt tags. One said, in red lettering, “I [heart] M37.” The other, in various bright colors, said, “Fix 37.”

This suggests a part of the problem the committee co-chairs, Senator Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, and Representative Greg Macpherson, D-Lake Oswego, face. The issue lies between legislative inaction on M37, on one hand, and a range of possible actions – with various and scattered support – on the other. The one side is a lot more focused than the other.

It’s a solvable problem, but some core issues may have to be addressed if the legislature is to avoid its sad record of 2005, when it punted the issue altogether.

Measure 37, passed by a large majority of the voters in 2004, says mot basically that the planning and zoning rules in effect when you bought your property can be what applies today; so that, for example, if you (or your ancestors) bought your property in 1962 when there were no legal barriers to subdividing your 500-acre farm into tract houses, you can do it now. That’s the theory at least, more or less, but the details get murky, and the legal cases – to cover any of the many gaps in the law – are multiplying. Meantime, the deadline for counties to process cases brought under Measure 37 is approaching in a few weeks, and some counties (eight, by one estimate made in testimony today) will miss the deadline. The possible impacts of development under M 37 could be massive in some places; testimony from such counties as Hood River, Lincoln and Jefferson were specific about the effects.

There is some argument, and substantial polling to back it up, that voters today would reject 37 if they had another crack at it. That, and the enhanced Democratic control at the Oregon Statehouse, has given legislators more push in their efforts to amend the law. But 37 still has plenty of defenders too.

The Joint Special Committee on Land Use Fairness, which Prozanski and MacPherson co-chair, has been working on options for weeks, often through a working group. The effort has been dominated by the Democrats, though Republicans, maybe most notably Representative Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls, have been involved. A turning point in all that came last Thursday when a new draft proposal – the “framework” – appeared, and Garrard and other Republicans said they would no support it. Prozanski and Macpherson had apparently been concerned that whatever the committee released be considered a bipartisan effort.

There were indications today that may be a lesser consideration. And it may have to be.

That doesn’t mean the process should be closed, and this one looks a little more closed than it probably should be. Only one public hearing – where the public can testify – seems to be planned, and that was this evening’s. At that point, only a preliminary version of the proposal was available, and scads of amendments were floating around. As Dave Hunnicutt of Oregonians in Action (the lead backer of M 37) testified, “I can’t give you cogent testimony without seeing the language of the amendments,” where single, subtle changes could alter everything.

Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, addressed the committee early in the hearing to caution that any attempt to shut out legislators or others could backfire, and warned that “more people are afraid of what this committee may do.” Several of the Republicans on the committee indicated they felt they were being shut out or left behind on the “framework” approach.

The problem is that much of their base doesn’t want Measure 37 tinkered with at all – the “I [heart] M37” crowd, which matches up with the Republicans, would rather see no change in the law at all. (Their argument in part is that the people have already spoken in passing the measure.) Under those conditions, where’s the incentive for the Republican legislators to engage in compromise? And so, in the end, they may not. For all that some witnesses said that Measure 37 shouldn’t be a partisan issue, it certainly appears to be.

More public hearings, at least one more after all the amendments are in, would be a good idea. The testimony being taken was aimed at a moving and partly invisible legislative target.

After that, the Democrats may simply have to act – and they should have the votes to do it. What might work is this: Passing into law a meshing of their own best take on public policy and what they think Oregon voters would accept, and at the same time referring the measure to the 2008 general election ballot. If Oregonians really have changed their minds about 37, they could endorse the alterations. If not, they could repudiate the Democratic proposal.

In the end, it probably won’t matter whether a Measure 37 proposal is bipartisan or not, and it may be that such a critter can’t be conjured by legislative genetics. But a political resolution of the issue is possible, and that may be what the legislature has to aim for. That, or wind up with a 2005 rerun.

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