The Oregon Legislature’s 2013 session got rolling this week, as lawmakers gathered in Salem for three days of organizing and training. The session begins in earnest on Feb. 4.
At a Tuesday session in Salem sponsored by The Associated Press, legislative leaders and Gov. John Kitzhaber alike expressed hopes that the 2013 session would remain tightly focused on a few key issues.
They also said they hope this session is marked by the kind of bipartisanship that graced the remarkable 2011 session, when an evenly divided House and a Senate that tilted by the smallest of margins to Democrats still managed to get quite a lot done.
But this year’s Legislature is dominated by Democrats, and Republican leaders on Tuesday played one of the oldest and most reliable cards in the minority party’s hand when they said, in essence, that it’s up to Democratic leadership to determine exactly how bipartisan this session becomes.
“Bipartisanship,” said Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, “doesn’t mean the minority party caves.”
Well, it’s true that it’s a lot easier to emphasize bipartisanship when you have almost no other choice, which was the case in 2011. And old political habits die hard.
But a couple of X factors also are at play in this year’s session. First is the role that Kitzhaber himself will play: His proposed budget relies on big savings from reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System – reforms that Republicans have greeted with more warmth than have Democrats.
The second unknown factor is that desire from both parties to keep a tight rein on the session. Expect these issues to dominate the session: Getting more money for K-12 education. Finding ways to generate more jobs for Oregonians. Rethinking our corrections system and reinvesting the money saved into community-based programs – maybe even mental health programs.
By contrast, there seemed to be little patience on Tuesday for issues that might detract from that focus. There was little enthusiasm voiced for sweeping gun control measures or, for that matter, on measures to outlaw the death penalty in Oregon. There was no talk at all about charter schools or medical marijuana or same-sex marriage.
Granted, the sound and fury of a legislative session provide ample opportunity for distraction. And it would be a miracle indeed if the session played out without any unseemly partisan squabbling.
But a steady focus on the bigger issues – and a willingness, despite the inevitable squabbles, to build deals with colleagues on the other side of the aisle – could make 2013 a session to rival the 2011 edition.