DJC Op-Ed: Why ‘short’ legislative sessions should really be short

smiling bespectacled man in suit and tie

By: Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter

This article was published by the DJC on January 31 in Buildings Bridges and Roads and can be viewed here (subscription required).

Several days from now, the Oregon Legislature will convene for about a month, in what is known as a “short session.” As in recent years, the session will be complex and dynamic as our elected leaders go head-to-head on policy ideas and goals while putting their fundraising and campaigning on hold for the brief, 35-day session.

This year’s short session meets an unpredictable election cycle, one that may likely be the most dynamic in recent years. The political structure of our state has the possibility to shift dramatically, whether that includes a supermajority in either the House or Senate or both, or the election of a Republican governor, an outcome we have not seen in more than 30 years.

Since statehood, Oregon’s legislative assembly met in multi-month sessions every odd-numbered year. Those sessions marked the gathering of our state representatives and state senators, when they met to consider, debate, pass and enact legislation deemed to be in the broader and long-term interest of the people.

The interim, the gap between “sine die” and session resumption, was when our legislators returned to their communities, families and jobs. And during the interim, hearings took place, work groups met, budgets and fiscal conditions were reviewed, and the budget was re-balanced if necessary. Everyone – legislators, the governor, special interests and regular citizens – had time to pause, reflect, work together, improve proposals or prepare new ones, and then the process started all over again in January of the next odd-numbered year.

The advantage of having a legislative session every other year was that time was on your side. The break led to meaningful conversation. Details were tweaked, problems dissected, and deep dives into policy allowed legislators and influencers to develop real ideas for positive change and real progress. The downtime served as a way to reboot the system, and where substantive work set the stage for the following session in the next odd-numbered year.

In 2010, Oregonians adopted Measure 71, also known as the Oregon Legislature Annual Sessions Amendment, by a 68 percent to 32 percent margin. This vote changed the political and legislative landscape of the state. Because of it, Oregon joined many other states by adopting what is effectively an annual legislative cycle.

We’re now entering our fourth short session and it will no doubt be overflowing with ideas with legislators headed in a myriad of directions. Some bills will quickly pass the House and Senate and be signed, and some will make their way back in the 2019 session for additional tweaking and improvements.

In a calmer climate, that would be tolerable, because legislators would work together to advance bills that enjoyed a consensus, and limit bills that were controversial or did not enjoy a clear majority of support from both parties.

And while there are advantages to a short session – a greater likelihood of avoiding special sessions as well as time to prepare for the long session – the environment of a short session is most effective when it is used primarily as a budget-rebalancing tool to evaluate revenues and expenditures and reassess accordingly.

Unfortunately, today we’re now experiencing short sessions where heavy-hitting legislative concepts are introduced and expected to be vote-ready in less than a month. The deep-dive that ought to partner such substantial legislation now rarely occurs because there simply isn’t sufficient time dedicated to do the work.

Our industry is likely to see several bills with the potential to impact the day-to-day bottom lines of our companies. These bills reflect issues that, if not properly vetted, may have extensive consequences. From cap-and-trade (now remarketed as “cap-and-invest”) and employment practices, to addressing the PERS unfunded liability, the threat of increased regulation and increased legislatively-imposed burdens looms even larger.

During the 2018 session, we will continue to advocate for the issues that impact our industry, including job-creating tax incentives, protecting employer-employee relationships by limiting unnecessary government intrusion, and supporting market-driven environmental regulation. Additionally, we will continue to play defense against the regulation of off-road diesel equipment and the imposition of cap-and-trade legislation that could substantially and negatively affect Oregon’s growing economy and therefore stunt our industry’s growth.

Legislative proposals that relate to our economy and our industry impact the mom-and-pop shop in Maupin and the corporate office in downtown Portland, from the cleaning company to the executive board, and because of that, we ought to keep ourselves focused on what is best for Oregon.

Making good laws and supportable policies is not a process that lends itself to quick decisions. The legislative process is supposed to work slowly to allow the many interests that make up our state the opportunity to understand what is being proposed, support those proposals if they can, and oppose them if they must.

We owe it to the people of our state and to the success of Oregon’s bottom line to take our time on issues relating to major policy installations. Limiting the scope of the upcoming – and all future – legislative sessions would be one giant step in that direction.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or mikes@agc-oregon.org.

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