State capitol

Legislators should stay away from complex, far-reaching issues during a five-week short session.

It is an odd sensation: While we were pleased to see Measure 101 pass in last week's election, the campaign left a bit of a sour aftertaste.

You recall Measure 101: At issue were two taxes, part of a funding plan passed by the 2017 Legislature to help pay for the state's expansion of its Medicaid program. One tax is on Oregon's largest hospitals; the other is a tax on many health insurance policies.

The taxes are estimated to raise $210 million to $320 million for the state's Medicaid program, known in this state as the Oregon Health Plan. That money will be used to attract additional federal funding, so some estimates were that a total of $1 billion or so potentially was at risk if Measure 101 had failed.

We reluctantly endorsed Measure 101, in part we worried that if it failed, legislators would have had little choice but to limit access to the Oregon Health Plan. And we believe expansion of the Oregon Health Plan is a good investment. 

But we also believed legislators — who have known for years that the state would have to find more money for the expansion — should have acted on this issue long before, instead of during the 2017 session, when deadlines loomed. The state should find ways to pay for this expansion out of its general fund.

In any event, the passage of Measure 101 takes care of one potential agenda item for the Legislature's short session, which begins next month: If the measure had failed, legislators would have had to find additional money to fill the gap.

What should legislators do with that additional time?

Here's our first suggestion: Nothing. Instead, tackle the relatively minor work of tying up loose ends from the 2017 session, fine-tune the state's budget and then go home.

In other words, deliver a short session that's in line with what voters expected when they approved annual sessions in 2010.

Voters understood that state government had become such a complicated operation that legislators couldn't keep an eye on it by meeting every other year. But many of those same voters worried about the havoc that could result if the Legislature held lengthy sessions each year.

So Measure 71, which authorized the annual sessions, struck a compromise: Most of the Legislature's heavy lifting would occur in sessions in odd-numbered years. Those sessions would run 160 days. Those were the sessions for big ideas or major policy changes.

By contrast, the sessions in odd-numbered years, such as the one that starts next month, were intended mostly to tie up loose ends, rebalance budgets and make technical fixes.

There's good reason for that: A 35-day session does not allow sufficient time for big ideas to get the full hearing they deserve, let alone for the public to participate in any meaningful way.

Despite that, the 2016 short session featured two big pieces of legislation that should have been considered in a longer session: a bill requiring power companies to eliminate coal-fired resources from their power supply and another measure to increase the state's minimum wage.

The 2018 session is likely to include another far-reaching measure, the Clean Energy Jobs Bill, intended to reduce carbon emissions statewide through a so-called "cap and invest" model. 

As we have argued before, the bill may well be the greatest piece of legislation in the history of legislation. But it's still too complex, too far-reaching, to be considered in the five-week short session. That time frame doesn't allow sufficient time for the legislative give-and-take that's a critical part of the process. And the speed of the session inevitably leaves the public on the sidelines. 

If legislators still want to tackle some heavier topics in the short session, here's a suggestion: start work on a long-term plan to pay for the Oregon Health Plan expansion. Just a thought.

Originally published Jan. 25 in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

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