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DJC Op-Ed: The Danger Posed by Oregon’s Short Legislative Sessions

DJC Op-Ed: The Danger Posed by Oregon’s Short Legislative Sessions

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

This article was published by the DJC on January 14 in Buildings Bridges and Roads, and can be viewed here (subscription required).

Daily Journal of CommerceIn a few short weeks, the Oregon Legislature is scheduled to convene for about 35 days, 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.

This year’s short session will then open the door to what is likely to be one of the most intense and combative election cycles in modern history. Our state’s political structure may become further imbalanced, possibly adding to the supermajorities that exist in both the Oregon House and Senate.

Since statehood, Oregon’s legislative assembly has met in multi-month sessions every odd-numbered year. During those sessions our state representatives and state senators have gathered 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 the next session, was the period when our legislators returned to their communities, families and jobs. And during the interim, hearings were held, work groups met, budgets and fiscal conditions were reviewed, and the budget was rebalanced if necessary. Everyone – legislators, the governor, special interests and regular citizens – had time to pause, reflect, work together, improve proposals or prepare new ones. Then the process started all over again in January of the next odd-numbered year.

In those now seemingly long-ago days, the interim frequently led to meaningful conversations on any number of issues. Details were tweaked and problems dissected. Deep dives into policy allowed legislators and influencers to develop real ideas for positive change and real progress. The interim gave those involved in the legislative process the chance to catch their breath, to reflect, to cool down from the passions of the long legislative journey. The interim served to reboot the system, and it was where substantive work set the stage for the following session in the next odd-numbered year.

In 2010, Oregonians voted to adopt 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 fifth short session since 2010. Beginning on Feb. 3, the Legislature will once again be facing an agenda overflowing with ideas, and legislators – in much the same fashion as actors in Monty Python’s “100 Meter Dash for People with No Sense of Direction” – will be pulled in a myriad of directions. Bills will quickly pass the House and Senate and be signed, and some will make their way back to Salem in the 2021 long (six-plus months) session for additional tweaks 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 – increasing likelihood of avoiding special sessions and allowing legislators to stay focused and prepare for the long session – the environment of is most effective when it is used primarily as a budget rebalancing tool. Revenues and expenditures can be evaluated and reassessed accordingly, to deal with true emergencies, or address technical changes that may have been required from legislation passed in the previous long session.

Unfortunately, now we’re 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.

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. As reported last week, front and center will be the reintroduction of a bill to create a cap-and-trade system – the issue that led to the nationally-infamous walkout at the end of the 2019 regular session. This is precisely the kind of legislation that is not suited for a 35-day gathering.

Legislative proposals that impact our industry will affect small companies – those that form the backbone of the state’s economy – across the state. These proposals should be considered carefully and thoroughly. Under no circumstances should such sweeping legislative proposals be jammed through by supermajorities of either party and put into law in such a short period of time.

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 legislative session – and all future ones – 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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