SALEM — Oregon’s legislative leaders may have faced one of the toughest audiences they’re going to see this year when they entered Hearing Room 50 at the Oregon Capitol Thursday morning.
As they took their seats at the front table, every set of eyeballs staring back at them belonged to a journalist looking for a relevant story.
They’re familiar with journalists. We’re the ones who want answers and transparency in government. When we don’t think our questions are addressed, we re-phrase them and ask again.
That occurred several times Thursday as journalists from across the state posed questions to Gov. John Kitzhaber and the majority and minority leaders from the House and Senate. While we listened for quotes that would answer our questions, they were aware that anything they said might be published or broadcast on a large scale. It’s always an interesting dynamic.
This particular occasion was the annual legislative preview sponsored by the Portland bureau of The Associated Press. It’s a meeting I’ve been traveling to since becoming editor more than six years ago. It was the first such gathering attended by News-Review reporter Carisa Cegavske, who’s taken on the politics beat in the past year.
It’s a session that can be overwhelming by the wide range of topics discussed, the many points of view and the fast pace. As the name suggests, it’s a preview of the issues the Legislature expects to take up during this year’s short session. But it’s often a recap of the previous year as well. And, once the floor is opened for questions from the journalists, any topic might come forward.
Thursday’s meeting was typical in that Democrats and Republicans talked of wanting to achieve many similar goals. They just have different ways of getting there.
Both parties want to create jobs and decrease Oregon’s unemployment rate. Both touted last year’s historic investment in K-12 education and they want to make college more affordable. The Democrats mentioned a bill that would make community college free for Oregon students. Republicans want to provide Oregon college graduates a tax deduction for paying their student loan interest if they stay in Oregon to work.
Both parties also are acutely aware that Democrats are in the majority.
“We govern by prodding, suggesting and cajoling,” Republican Rep. Mike McLane of Powell Butte said. “I hope the majority party doesn’t roll back the agreements we’ve made. Let’s focus on what we can accomplish together.”
Democrat Val Hoyle of Eugene was among those who admitted the election year could be a factor in what the Legislature is able to do: “It’s the Democrats’ job to show they know how to govern. For the Republicans who are up for election, their job is to get re-elected.”
Despite some skeptical looks being exchanged, the party members tend to be optimistic regarding their ability to work together when the session begins Monday.
“We’re not Congress,” said Republican Julie Parrish of West Linn. “We can still work across the aisle.”
The legislators acknowledged their audience, joking about recent headlines and stories. Republican Ted Ferrioli of John Day made a point to say, “I still read print media.”
For Southern Oregonians, and there weren’t many of us there this year, some topics were less relevant to our daily lives, like the proposed Columbia River Crossing Interstate 5 bridge.
Yet, House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, made sure we were paying attention when she noted gridlock on the freeway between Portland and Vancouver affects those hauling “timber from Southern Oregon.” (I’ll bet she looked at the list of who was invited to the event).
All the legislators mentioned the brief 35-day session limits what can be done. Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem, even said he’s fearful they’ve set the bar too high for what can be accomplished.
Legislators will see 80 Senate bills and 154 House bills introduced, and as many as 46 more may be filed on opening day. Another dozen resolutions are on the agenda.
From the sounds of Thursday’s meeting, the biggest focus may be on bills designed to correct problems that surfaced over the Cover Oregon website.
I guarantee journalists across the state will keep demanding to know who and what’s to blame for the website malfunctions. That’s what we do.
News-Review Editor Vicki Menard can be reached at 541-957-4203 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.