Waiting to join a virtual meeting is not the same as waiting in the Capitol lobby
Monday, March 8, 2021
Expectations for this legislative session must be re-evaluated. As our students and teachers know, virtual meetings lack those short, but vital, face-to-face connections that make it easier to get work done.
I’ve been a lobbyist for more than 20 years, and I know the typical rhythms for how and when laws are made. The issues and personalities change, but the process remains the same.
This year, the process has fundamentally changed. The Salem Reporter must have been reading my mind, because its article last week on lobbying captures the challenges of a virtual environment. Lobbyists provide timely expertise on issues, but without casual interactions in hallways and hearing rooms, much of the information sharing is lost.
These tricky times have hurt the normal legislative process. There is nothing better than in-person communications and robust debate in committees and on the chamber floors. That isn’t what we have now.
Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek met with lobbyists before the session, acknowledging the challenge of a virtual legislative session. They said a group had explored scenarios to make the session go as smoothly as possible, but even with extensive planning I don’t think anyone could have predicted the true challenges. The legislative process seems to take one step forward and then three steps back with technology hiccups, power outages and ongoing internet struggles.
Last week while streaming a committee hearing, I heard someone ask why they hadn’t heard from OSBA, much to my distress. As a matter of fact, the bill had been heard one month ago, and I did testify. I had also contacted the legislator’s chief of staff to talk about the bill and answer questions.
So, there I sat fidgeting in my chair, trying to figure out what to do next. Frantically, I emailed the committee administrator, but of course that didn’t work. I tried texting someone who had just testified, asking them to say OSBA did weigh in, but that didn’t work. Finally, I reached the legislator’s chief of staff after the bill hearing was closed. He apologized but said he had not had a chance to speak with the legislator yet and close the loop. (Big sigh)
Just when you think you are all set and prepared, something like this happens. Only this session, it is happening a lot.
The access problem is compounded on high-intensity bills. It’s not uncommon to have more people signed up to testify than will fit in the allotted time. When we were in the Capitol, I could catch a legislator walking between hearings and give an “elevator speech” of valuable information. Now I have to send texts or try to schedule a phone call or a Zoom call. If you multiply that by the 3,000-plus bills in the system right now, that is a lot of Zooms, text messages and phone calls for legislators, lobbyists and the public to manage.
“Online hearings are inefficient and time consuming,” Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, said in a newsletter. “Overall, I expect that fewer bills than usual will actually pass in 2021.”
There is one bright spot. The virtual meetings allow people from around the state who normally couldn’t get to the Capitol to engage in the legislative process – if they have the technology.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he appreciated getting input from all over Oregon.
“That's one of the silver linings of the COVID era and our need to hold committee hearings remotely – it really does open up access to the process for people from distant parts of the state,” Dembrow, D-Portland, wrote in a newsletter. “This is something that we will need to continue even after things clear up and we're able to return to the Capitol for our hearings.”