Writings and observations

Measuring expectations

Oregon SenateIn Idaho, where – as in Oregon – the legislature is launching its activities under strained physical circumstances – expectations for this 2008 session are slight. Ask legislative leaders what they hope this session will accomplish and, once you get past dealing with the budget and money matters, they run dry quickly. And that’s not the criticism it may seem. In most specific sessions of any state legislature, the only thing that has to be done is the updating of the state’s ledger. When that’s done, as legislators almost everywhere know, their obligatory work is done, and they can adjourn.

In the runup to today’s launch of the special – with hopes of becoming regular – even-yeared session of the Oregon Legislative Assembly, there’s been a lot of harrumphing from many quarters about what bar the legislature must meet to justify its annual appearance. That subject will doubtless return in discussion over the rest of the year, whatever lawmaker do or don’t. (Vic Gilliam: “Is it a historic event or a sneaky play for a full-time Legislature?” The Oregonian‘s David Reinhard, who supports annual sessions: ‘As The Oregonian‘s Harry Esteve wrote in last Sunday’s Opinion section, it’s being called the ‘Seinfeld session’ – the session about nothing – and legislators ‘desperately want to show the public they can act like grown-ups.’ That’s a political strategy, not a governing strategy.”)

Our take is that this attempt to establish an annual legislative session shouldn’t be held to a standard higher than any other (or lower either). Minimally, it should get the state properly updated financially. To do better than the minimum, it also ought to address other important developing situations (the housing finance collapse comes to mind, among others) and review progress since the last session.

A good session (and the last one was pretty good) would be worth aspiring to. But it doesn’t seem essential to make the point.

You can make the point by looking around the country. Oregon aside, just five states – Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Texas – aren’t holding regular sessions this year, and (not to put too snarky a point on it) none of those are necessarily governments Oregon should want to closely emulate. All but Texas are small, and – well, let’s just pass for now on a discussion of the famous Texas lege.

In neighboring Idaho, which has had annual sessions now for about 40 years, there’s some thought (on our part at least) that the even-year sessions could be usefully scaled back a little, to focus more tightly on budget, revenue and immediate crisis matters. But no one serious in Idaho politics has argued for at least a couple of decades that the state return to biennials. The biggest reason is the money: Two years and more is a long stretch to plan for without any practical opportunity to make a course correction. (Reinhard’s main point, to be fair, seems to be that the Oregon legislature this session should do exactly that – make adjustments to meet the changing fiscal times.)

Other stuff comes up too, of course, but that’s erratic – you never know for sure when or what it might be. All you can be reasonably sure of, in a fast-changing world, is that something probably will.

And, in most states, does. Our guess is that in the course of this one-month session, Salem will be hopping, however contrived the call for the session may have been. And that will make its point, too.

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