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A run that wasn’t dry

Oregon statehouse Reading yesterday a few hours before the Oregon Legislature adjourned – late on Friday night – about what the session did and didn’t accomplish, a blunt assessment jumped out: “As the February session winds down, there is an emerging consensus that a month-long supplemental session doesn’t work.”

That showed up at the Conkling Fiskum & McCormick Insider blog, and carried the weight of opinions from some skeptical legislators about their experimental session. The second paragraph added, “To the relief of Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and others who championed the experiment with annual sessions, the February session hasn’t been a disaster. But virtually no one thinks it has been very productive, either.”

Hmm. That would depend on your perspective, and if the perspective lies in comparing a session that ran 19 days – just two-thirds of the shortest month in the year – with the traditional half-year model, then no, it wasn’t very productive. But that’s not much of a comparison.

The suggestion in the Insider piece, and in blogging by the Oregonian‘s Jeff Mapes, is not so much that the annual session idea is bad but that the experimental session may have been too short. There’s something to that. Washington state has a regular truncated election-year session but gives it about two months to do its work, and a tight series of deadlines are imposed through the process to help guide lawmakers to getting things done. Part of the problem with the one-month – pardons, three-week – Oregon session is that the time frame wasn’t institutionalized, so lawmakers and others probably weren’t well set up to handle the specific requirements of it. But two months, or maybe three, might be a better option. Mapes reports that he’s heard just this sort of things from legislators and others: “But I have been struck by how out-of-sorts many legislators and lobbyists feel. They’re used to certain rhythms and it’s hard for them to figure out something that is neither fish nor fowl. This is not a one- or two-day special session with a rigid agenda, nor is it a wide-open regular session where you have months to develop ideas.”

So some tinkering probably would be helpful. But before calling the experimental session a failure, it might be helpful to look at what Oregonians did get out of it.

Our view is that the best argument for annual sessions is to allow for course corrections on budget and fiscal matters. That was a relatively low-key matter this time, since economic slowdowns in Oregon are essentially resulting in a reigning-in of what was already on the table. But legislators did make a number of adjustments that should help budgeting and planning run more smoothly than under the biennial regime. (Washington and Idaho are in the same boat.) It was little noted, but worth bringing legislators to town nonetheless; in other years, the course correction may be more substantial.

The prevailing view as to the most significant thing the legislators did – and we’ll agree – was in sending to the ballot an alternative (an additional option) to the Kevin Mannix crime initiative. This could be useful work for many a future election-year session: Not shutting down initiatives that have made the ballot, but offering options which might work better. The voters will decide later on which (if either) they like, but at least now they’ll have a choice, and it won’t be (as the rhetoric inevitably would have it) the false choice of cracking down on crime v. soft on crime.

And there were sundry other things. Added state cops for the highways (something both parties had clamored for), energy tax credits, some legislative aimed at the home finance mess (not all those proposals passed but some did), crackdown on dog fighting, help for the Oregon State Hospital and other items.

The Oregonian seemed to get it about right in its editorial concluding, “The Oregon Legislature’s February experiment, a perilous first-of-its-kind special assembly now speeding toward adjournment [written, obviously, pre-sine die], produced several substantive accomplishments and successfully demonstrated the value of annual sessions.”

Not perfect, but something to be adjusted and improved upon, rather than trashed.

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