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As the 2018 session’s time draws short, so do tempers and patience
The rationale behind moving to annual sessions is often summarized as “long sessions are for doing, short sessions are for fixing.” That was, at least, how the “short” session was sold.
In reality, this session has been a brutal dash that has combined big ambitions with compressed deadlines.
On Feb. 5, the Legislature gaveled in the 2018 session. Constitutionally, this session cannot go longer than 35 days, meaning legislators must adjourn no later than March 11.
Short sessions were first tested in 2008 and 2010, trial balloons launched mainly by Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem). Procedurally, those sessions took the form of special sessions called by the governor. They seemed successful, and short sessions were formally ratified in 2010 by Ballot Measure 71. The first official short session was in 2012.
The even-year sessions are simultaneously too long and too short: not enough time to vet or evaluate complex ideas but just long enough to take perceived slights personally and form grudges. The sessions are incredibly tough on staff, especially nonpartisan committee staff, who must do the work of six months in approximately three weeks.
Some legislators, usually with the best intentions, try to tackle topics in a few days that properly need months or years of work. And other legislators, sometimes with political motivations, do things because the short session happens in an election year, and they perceive gains to be had if they force an outcome on a policy initiative.
This recipe – a short amount of time, a huge amount of ambition and the political future of almost everyone involved – generally makes short sessions painful and difficult. This session has been no exception. A few examples:
House Bill 4113: OSBA has been working hard against HB 4113, which would likely raise district costs by making class size a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. Passing the bill was the Oregon Education Association’s No. 1 priority for this session, and no matter what side of the debate anyone found themselves on, it has been a bitter experience. Major education stakeholders – including OSBA, the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators and OEA – have been split on the bill. Legislators have had to choose between being perceived as voting for their teachers and against their school districts and students or vice versa. At this point the bill seems to be dead in the Senate Education Committee, but the fight is probably not over. Some form of the bill will likely come back in 2019.
HB 4001: HB 4001 has been called many things this session: the “clean energy jobs” bill, “cap and invest,” “cap and trade,” and even, sotto voce by opponents, “cap and extort.” Regulating greenhouse gas emissions is a huge policy initiative. It is unclear if the bill has a path to law, but it seems that proponents and opponents both dislike portions of the bill in the most recent set of amendments. It will probably have to come back in 2019, and it seems likely that the wounds suffered this year will not have healed by then.
SB 1566: SB 1566 is being called the governor’s PERS bill. It seeks to incentivize investment by school districts, counties, cities and other municipal employers into a matching fund to lower Public Employees Retirement System costs. This is a good idea, and there are likely no opponents of this kind of policy. The challenge, however, is that there is no money for the fund. The main sources under consideration are either operating funds from the employer (in the case of schools, the district budget from the State School Fund) or unclaimed property and other assets in the Common School Fund. Neither of these are perfect options because that money is either used by schools now (State School Fund) or in the future (Common School Fund). Unfortunately, there is no other obvious source of revenue because the Legislature continues to be unable to find a source of revenue to address the ongoing PERS funding nightmare.
SB 1528: SB 1528 is a tax bill that would de-couple Oregon’s tax laws from the federal government’s tax laws. In the wake of the recent federal tax changes, Oregon stood to have a budget shortfall of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. SB 1528 drew bitter debate on the Senate floor Friday, Feb. 23. It was so rancorous that Sen. Brian Boquist (R-Dallas) said that the bill was so offensive to him and to the work of the Senate, specifically the recently empaneled Joint Committee on Student Success, that he no longer wanted to be a part of that committee. He asked Senate President Peter Courtney, both on the floor and in a follow-up email, to be removed from that committee. Shortly thereafter the bill passed, Boquist voted no, and no one thought that was the best way for the Senate to conduct business.
There have been some successes and some joint efforts this session, but they have been few and far between. Short sessions continue to be difficult for all involved, and hopefully changes can be made in future sessions to find some balance between the need to “fix” and the opportunity to “do” during even-numbered years.
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist