Down the Ballot

Monday, October 7, 2013

Special Session Decompress

Say what you want about the legislation passed during the recent session of the Oregon legislature. I dare not call it a special session. Governor Kitzhaber could call another one for the Columbia River Crossing sometime this fall or winter.

Blue Oregon did a great job (far better than the old media) of breaking down the votes and giving real opportunities for opponents and advocates of some of the legislation a chance to weigh in on the session. All five bills got the required votes needed to pass. It wasn't all along clear party lines. 

The biggest problem with this last special session and the one last December is that when we try and legislate supposedly important laws in such a compressed time frame a lot of the public doesn't get a chance to give input into the law making process. How many town halls were held about the five bills that were passed? I feel it was somewhat arrogant of the governor and legislative leaders to think they could do all this in a single one day special session and the expanding of two extra days was somewhat beneficial, but not nearly as beneficial to the public as it would have been had these bills come up during the regular session.

If anything, these special sessions have indicated a willingness of our leaders to circumnavigate the typical deliberative nature of our legislative process. Deals were cut before the session began and the public hearings appeared to be mostly for show. The leadership had pretty much created the deals they needed to pass the legislation, and when it looked like they would come up short on votes, they stopped; went back behind closed doors and had the governor come  down to "persuade" some to change their mind. I use the term persuade, because of we really have no way for knowing exactly what he said to convince them to switch their votes. Shouldn't the public have a right to know? If it had been you, would you have gone back behind a closed door? Or would you have sat there on the floor at your desk and let the governor chat to you in front of every other legislator?

The Statesman Journal in an editorial shortly before the session commend Governor Kitzhaber for meeting behind closed doors,  
It made sense for Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber to meet with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders behind closed doors, away from the external politicking, to negotiate a politically acceptable package of bills.
It made sense? A newspaper that is supposedly around to help inform the public about such things has just said meetings behind closed doors make sense in the legislative process. External politicking is natural and healthy in a democracy. Citizens, public interest groups and even those dreaded lobbyists all have a place in the process. When deals are made behind closed doors, these folks have very little say in the process. The Friday before the special session was the only day of public testimony that I am aware of on any of these bills. Not a whole lot of time.

Senate President Peter Courtney said this to the Statesman Journal on the aftermath of this recent session, “I don’t know how much damage has been done to this institution and to individual relationships". The real damage to the legislature is that future governors and leaders know exactly what to do now when they want to circumnavigate the public's input on the legislative process. Call another special ONE DAY SESSION.

The Oregon legislature is a place of problems and opportunities. There will always be problems, what we must ensure is that the public has the opportunities to provide feedback and input into the policy making process at as many levels that are possible.   

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