This year's short session of the Oregon Legislature was even shorter than advertised: The session wrapped up on Saturday, more than a week before its March 11 deadline.
And that's a good thing — testimony, in part, to the efforts by Senate President Peter Courtney to keep the short session on a tight leash. Courtney has been among the biggest proponents of keeping the short sessions focused on balancing the budget and tying up loose ends from the longer legislative sessions Oregon holds in odd-numbered years.
Courtney and leading Republicans have argued that the short sessions are not the proper venues for complicated measures or major revisions of state policy.
So it was no coincidence that two major pieces of legislation passed this year by the House of Representatives stalled in the Senate: A proposal to cap greenhouse gas emissions died in a Senate committee, as did a proposal to enshrine health care as a right in the Oregon Constitution.
You can be sure both of those measures will return in the 2019 session. Lobbyists say the greenhouse gas measure, in particular, seems to have a good shot at passage in 2019. But some of that will depend on what happens in November's election, when all 60 members of the House and half of the Senate stand for re-election. As matters now stand, Democrats are one vote shy of a supermajority in each chamber. A supermajority would allow Democrats to pass tax increases without any support from Republicans — and at least nine House Republicans, including Rep. Andy Olson of Albany, have said they will not run for re-election. We'll hear more about that as the election season heats up.
The early days of the session were dominated by the controversy regarding Sen. Jeff Kruse, the Roseburg Republican who was accused of sexually harassing and groping women at the Capitol, including Sen. Sara Gelser of the mid-valley and least three other female lawmakers. After an independent investigator issued a devastating report, Kruse resigned — and lawmakers said the resignation considerably eased the level of tension in the Capitol. However, state government and other institutions, both local and national still have plenty of work ahead of it to create welcoming environments for all.
Even though major policy initiatives such as the health care amendment and the carbon cap stalled in the Senate, legislators still had to wade through some 260 measures this session — and managed to find an additional $93 million in general fund and lottery money to patch some holes in the state's two-year budget, which clocks in at about $21 billion. (These budgetary fixes are a big reason why we have these short sessions in the first place.)
Among the areas that won additional funding:
• Oregon State University’s Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center got $3 million for a wave energy test site. (On a related matter, the Legislature approved $39 million in bonds to help construct a second academic building at OSU's Cascades campus in Bend; the bonds were the top legislative priority for OSU this session.)
• Another $3 million in lottery bond proceeds will go to help build a secure adolescent inpatient facility at Trillium Family Service's Children's Farm Home in Corvallis.
• Benton County's transition to ranked choice voting, which voters approved in 2016, will be eased somewhat by $200,000 in state money.
• The state Department of Human Services got an additional $15.7 million to hire more caseworkers and staff.
• An additional $27.5 million will help cover the costs of fighting 2017's wildfires.
Although this short session stayed (mostly) within proper boundaries, it's largely because the more conservative Senate has served as a check on the House. This year's elections may play a role in removing that check — and if that happens, don't be surprised if 2020's short session runs wild. (mm)