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Key measures for Malheur County flunk Republican demand for readability

State Sen. Lynn Findley joined other Republicans to bring the Senate to a halt in recent days because eighth graders couldn’t understand pending legislation.

Findley and his fellow Republicans are alarmed about a law they discovered that requires plain English in legislation.

“We’ve broken the law to this point,” Findley said in an interview Friday, May 5.

The Republicans are so gravely concerned about their finding that they have disrupted progress in the Senate. They are taking turns skipping Senate sessions, leaving other legislators without a quorum and no ability to act on legislation.

They say they will continue the walkout until legislation is rewritten. That could mean measures important to Malheur County, such as funding for the Ontario Recreation District, could be at risk.

Explaining what’s happening in a way an eighth grader could understand is a challenge.

Let’s start with that law.

In 1979, legislators passed a law requiring the summary of measures “be written in a manner that results in a score of at least 60 on the Flesch readability test.”

The test produces a score on the ease of reading a particular block of text. The results range from “very easy to read” to “extremely difficult to read.”

To meet the law, summaries of proposed laws, typically just a few sentences, must register as “plain English” that an eighth grader could understand.

That law elaborates on a provision in the Oregon Constitution that legislation “shall be plainly worded, avoiding as far as practicable the use of technical terms.” (Flesch score on that provision: “fairly difficult to read.”)

Senate rules also require that a summary of any legislation comply with the readability law. That rule is “very easy to read” under the Flesch score.

Findley said he and his fellow senators learned about the law and other provisions in a recent Sunday night meeting.

“Nobody even knew about it,” said Findley, who has served in the Legislature since 2018.

Findley said Republicans decided they had no choice but to demand a rewriting of summaries for pending legislation that does not pass the “plain English” test.

The Legislature has been processing bills since it convened Jan. 17 and is required to finish by June 25.

Findley said that when he took office, he swore an oath to the Constitution and to uphold state laws.

“I can’t blatantly ignore that,” Findley said.

Republican leaders in the House and the Senate went public with their concerns last week in press statements.

“Laws are to be plainly written and easy to understand,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, the Senate Republican leader. “When the majority of bill summaries written demand a post-graduate degree to understand what the bills do, we disenfranchise Oregonians across the state and violate the law in the process.” (Flesch score: “difficult to read.”)

They issued a fact sheet that quoted the law and constitution. Their description of the Senate rule scores as “difficult to read.” The sheet also provided an explanation of the Flesch test.

“The Flesch–Kincaid readability test is a tool that has been used for decades – for example building codes, life insurance policies, and health insurance policies all require a Flesch score. Legislative Counsel has ignored this requirement, as bill summaries have become increasingly difficult to read and understand.” (Flesch score: “difficult to read.”)

State Rep. Vickie Breese-Iverson, the House Republican leader from Prineville, said in a statement, “Most current bill summaries are unlawful, they’re intentionally written to be complex and opaque. It’s critical that bill summaries are plainly worded and easily understood by everyday Oregonians. “

Breese-Iverson, who has been in the Legislature since 2019, said that “since I have been in office, it has not been an issue” but “it is our responsibility to follow the law..”

The solution, the fact sheet said, is that “every bill needs to go back to its sponsor (legislator)” to be redrafted and then has to be acted on again by legislative committees.

The fact sheet, though, indicates the real concern may be with major bills that Republicans so far have been unable to stop. They cite House Bill 2002, which concerns reproductive rights and gender-affirming care and passed the House Monday, May 1. Another, House Bill 2005, imposes new gun limits and passed the House on Tuesday, May 2.

Both bills are now pending in the Senate.

One bill benefiting Malheur County that could get caught in the political tempest would allocate $4.5 million in state money to the Ontario Recreation Center. The summary of House Bill 2410, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane and Findley, would take someone with a college education to understand, based on Flesch scoring.

The summary for a bill intended to fix previous legislation to allow limited housing on Malheur County farmland also would need revision, scoring as requiring a college education to understand. Findley said he hadn’t conducted that scoring because he considered Senate Bill 70 to be dead.

Last week, Republican leaders demanded that Democratic leaders in the House and Senate follow the “plain English” requirements.

When their demand wasn’t met, Republican senators started staying away from floor sessions. That meant there weren’t the required number of senators needed for the Senate to act.

Each day, several senators were recorded as “unexcused.” Senate President Rob Wagner convened the Senate through the weekend, causing “unexcused” absences to pile up. The walkout continued Monday, April 8.

Findley was unexcused Monday, his third in the past week.

Both sides are watching the count closely. Oregon law bars a legislator from seeking re-election if they have 10 unexcused absences in a session. Voters passed that restriction last November, with 57 percent of Malheur County voters favoring the measure.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected],

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