The calendar suggests that plenty of time remains in this year’s legislative session, which is scheduled to run until the end of June, although lawmakers generally prefer to be out of Salem a few days early, if at all possible.
But we’re getting to that point in the session at which bills that fail to clear early hurdles will be considered dead — at least, as dead as you can get in an Oregon legislative session, which, like a zombie movie, is notorious for reanimating the corpses of bills left for dead weeks before. (And this says nothing about the aptly named “gut-and-stuff” legislative maneuver, in which the text of a bill is removed and replaced with something that supposedly has a connection, however tenuous, to the earlier bill.)
In any event, we’ve reached the point at which bills are beginning to fall by the wayside: In theory at least, bills that had not been scheduled for a work session in its chamber of origination by the end of the day last Friday likely are dead. Lawmakers are facing an April 9 deadline to move other measures out of those committees. It could be adios for bills that still linger in committee after that deadline.
Among the bills that have run out of gas along the way is one sponsored by Senate President Peter Courtney: His Senate Bill 7 would have lowered the blood alcohol content threshold for a drunken-driving conviction from .08 percent to .05. In a way, the bill was a sequel to an earlier Courtney effort: As a freshman legislator in 1983, he led the fight to lower the threshold from 0.10 to its current level.
As we noted in an earlier editorial, the proposal to move to an .05 threshold seems premature, especially since Utah just recently moved to the lower level; it would make sense to hold off and see what impact the rule change has there. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the Eugene Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, apparently agreed and told Courtney he wanted more work done on the idea outside the session.
Courtney said the bill was a big issue for him this session — but, as Senate president, he consistently has put a priority on keeping the Legislature focused on finishing on time. So he’s letting the bill die, for this session at least.
All of which serves as an important reminder about one important function of the Legislature — or, for that matter, any legislative body:
Sure, it’s important that legislators pass measures to help address important issues.
But it’s also important — maybe even more important — for legislatures to kill bills.
The entire legislative process is designed as a brutal gantlet to mercilessly expose weaknesses in proposed bills — and that’s the way it should be. This is why the legislative process offers so many spots at which a bill can die — and why it’s so hard for legislation to make its way to the governor’s desk (which is, naturally, another spot where a bill can be killed).
There’s another important reason why it’s so important for legislative bodies to be brutal in the early going: It allows legislators to focus their attention on the big-deal issues that still remain on the docket. This year’s session (somewhat surprisingly, considering the speed at which it occurred) already has pushed through a pair of big-ticket items, statewide rent control and part of the funding for the Oregon Health Plan.
But plenty of work remains on a number of other important (and contentious) items, such as the state’s budget, possible new taxes on businesses, a proposal for a carbon cap-and-trade system, gun control and zoning changes intended to help create more affordable housing. That’s a full dance card in and of itself; as we move into the second half of the session, legislators will do well to eliminate as many distractions as possible.