Oregon Republicans and Democrats at odds over intent of legislative short session

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, discusses the 2020 legislative session with reporters. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

SALEM — You could say that Oregon is a bit “odd.”

Until 2012, the state’s legislators only met in odd-numbered years, a practice dating to 1885. 

But the sessions got longer as lawmakers grappled with issues facing a growing state. By the 1980s, the average session lasted six months, according to the secretary of state’s office.

In 2010, voters said “yes” to allowing annual sessions — and limiting the number of days in each session. So now, in every even-numbered year, lawmakers and lobbyists descend on the Capitol for a “short session” of up to 35 days.

Confused yet?

In the 10 years since voters approved the change, the short session has provided something else for Democrats and Republicans to quibble over. GOP lawmakers complain that the even-year sessions have become unruly with consequential new laws pushed through with inadequate time for the public to have its say.

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The next of these maligned “short sessions” begins Feb. 3. Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who leads Democrats in the Senate, told reporters last week that short sessions are intended “primarily for budget issues.” 

Legislators write the state’s two-year budget during its longer sessions, then use the even years in between for touch-ups.

But in her next breath, Burdick said the session is also time to address issues of an “urgent nature,” such as reducing the state’s emissions. A similar proposal stalled last session after Senate Republicans fled the state.

During the 2016 short session, for example, lawmakers raised the minimum wage, intended to stave off a potential ballot measure that Burdick said wouldn’t have been as carefully crafted.

“I think you’re always going to have that tension, you know, what is an emergency?” she said. “What is urgent?” 

With a plan to enforce emissions restrictions on greenhouse gases expected to dominate the session, Republican lawmakers have complained that the public won’t have time to give input as the legislation is shepherded through the House and Senate with a tight 35-day deadline.

Democrats counter that time is running out to tackle climate change and that ballot measures on the horizon, pushed by environmental groups, mean lawmakers should use the session to craft a more careful plan.

Some lawmakers say the short session isn’t used as intended. Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, has proposed doing away with it altogether. 

“Ever since it was instituted, as I live through each of these short sessions, I think, ‘Wow, this is not what was sold to the voters,’” Thatcher said. “I think it needs to be reevaluated as to whether it’s working or not and make some changes.”

Thatcher’s proposal — Senate Joint Resolution 202 — would eliminate the short session but keep the current 160-day limit on regular session in odd-numbered years. Lawmakers could extend that session by five days at a time by a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber.

“I would even say that (regular sessions) could be made a little shorter,” Thatcher said. 

While proposing to get rid of the short session, Thatcher said she also is open to looking at ways of limiting what could be done in a short session. She thinks that could restore the short session to what she believes lawmakers intended. 

What’s particularly frustrating, according to Thatcher, is that the Legislature can call itself into special session for emergencies and budget fixes anyway. She recalls special sessions between her election to the House in 2004 and when the short session was implemented first in 2010. 

The short session’s architect, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, wasn’t available to comment on his creation. (Courtney was absent for a week of meetings lawmakers held at the Capitol Jan. 13-17 due to hospitalization for a hip injury).

Previously, Courtney said one session every other year was not enough to complete lawmakers’ work. 

“Society is so dynamic and so diverse,” he told The Oregonian in 2010. “There are so many more people than when they first designed this structure that it cannot respond the way it should.”

The Legislature held record-length sessions in 2003 and 2005, followed by a special session in 2006. The saga renewed interest in annual sessions.

In 2006, a nonpartisan citizens’ commission recommended that the Legislature move to annual sessions to better attend to the state’s business.

Two years later, the Legislature held a special session that was billed as a test run for a permanent annual session. During the 19-day session, lawmakers adjusted budgets, approved bonds for an arena at the University of Oregon and tightened toy safety. 

But other key proposals didn’t advance, including help for distressed homeowners and changing the handling of teacher misconduct. Some lawmakers complained that the session was too short to accomplish all that should have been addressed.

Then, in 2010, lawmakers referred the issue to voters with what The Register-Guard described as “scornful opposition from minority Republicans.” Later that year, voters approved the change.

In the pamphlet distributed to Oregon voters in November 2010, unions argued that an annual session would allow lawmakers to better respond to economic issues as the state recovered from the 2008 recession. 

A group of bipartisan lawmakers argued that an annual session would improve government efficiency and responsiveness.

“Since 1999, the Legislature has had to call eight special sessions to resolve urgent issues that couldn’t wait,” they wrote in the Voter’s Pamphlet. “This is an ineffective and inefficient way of doing the people’s business. Oregonians deserve better.”

Proponents said annual meetings of the Legislature would save taxpayer money by cutting down on lengthy sessions in odd-numbered years.

There was no organized opposition to the ballot measure, but Sen. Brian Boquist was a vocal critic.

In a recent interview, the Dallas Republican said that voters were told the session would be used for budget adjustments and technical fixes to laws. 

Boquist still opposes the way the short session is structured. He said that the session’s schedule requires bills to clear hurdles during the first week, which cuts off opportunities for public participation. Boquist said that’s particularly problematic for complex legislation, such as the plan to enforce emissions caps.

He also attributed the short session to growing animosity in the Capitol. (Boquist made national headlines last year for threats against state police and now must give Capitol administrators 12 hours’ notice before entering the building).

Having a legislative session every other year gave lawmakers a chance to cool off after a confrontation, Boquist said, and the Legislature is now essentially full time and lawmakers struggle to hold down jobs while being responsive to Salem. 

“We have created this beast that is not capable of supporting itself,” he said. 

But instead of abolishing the short session, Boquist said that Oregon should have a longer session in even years similar to Washington. 

Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.

Reporter Jake Thomas: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.