The Oregon Legislature’s special session ended last week with self-congratulations.
Gov. John Kitzhaber said the ability of Oregon lawmakers to work together on a bipartisan “grand bargain” was in “stark contrast to what’s going on in our nation’s Capitol.”
Comparing yourself to Congress sets a low bar. Right now, the order and dignity of a three-ring circus stands in stark contrast to Washington, D.C.
Rather than looking eastward, Kitzhaber should look at how Oregon governs itself and ask: Was calling this special session the right thing to do?
Voters in 2010 authorized the Legislature to convene annual regular sessions. Because the next regular session is never far away, special sessions can be reserved for issues that absolutely can’t wait. A natural disaster, financial crisis or a sweeping court ruling are reasons for calling a special session.
There was no emergency here.
The governor’s special-session proclamation declared that Oregon underfunds education, small businesses are struggling and there’s an opportunity to reform the Public Employees Retirement System.
All that may be true. But it was no less true when the Legislature adjourned in July — except for maybe the chance to cut public pension benefits and spend the money elsewhere. This is where it gets really dicey.
Kitzhaber negotiated a deal with a handful of House and Senate leaders. Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, had more access to inside information than most, and he said he still felt shut out. According to Kruse, who has been in the Legislature since 1996, 86 out of 90 Oregon lawmakers “really knew none of the details” until very late.
Kruse’s contention was that everything could have waited until the Legislature convenes again in February. He’s right. The bills increasing education spending and cutting pension costs will have little immediate effect. Plus, the bills would have received more scrutiny in February.
Regular sessions are messy, prolonged affairs that involve lawmakers, the governor, lobbyists and earnest citizens working out their differences. In the end, there are winners and losers, but at least the losers had a chance to make their case.
By design, special sessions are tidier and give more power to the few who script them. Constitutionally, lawmakers can hijack a special session and address issues the governor didn’t intend. But for many legislators, a special session is an imposition. Some states have full-time legislators and are paid accordingly. Oregon has part-time legislators who receive $21,936 a year. When not in session, they have businesses to run, jobs to hold and lives to lead.
So here comes the governor summoning them to Salem to vote on five bills. It was a lot more complicated than trimming pensions benefits and increasing education spending. Other topics the bills addressed include mental health spending, cigarette taxes, genetically modified organisms, corporate taxes, small business taxes, personal income taxes and the rainy day fund.
Originally, Kitzhaber expected legislators to drop by to approve all that in one day.
The session went three days. Even then, the speed was in stark contrast to how Oregon usually governs itself.