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Legislative 'test drive' creative rule bending

Planned 'emergency' belies constitutional intent for special sessions
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Mark Twain said that no man's life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.

If you believe that, then you better run for the hills because the Oregon Legislature is moving toward meeting twice as often as it has for the past 122 years.

Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley want the Legislature to meet every year instead of every other year. So do a lot of their colleagues - in fact, most of their colleagues, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of a joint resolution proposing a 'test drive' this year. The Legislature will convene for four weeks starting Feb. 4.

The idea is to give legislators and the people of Oregon a feel for what it would be like if the Legislature met every year instead once every two years. If the 2008 session goes off relatively smoothly, legislators will in all probability submit a measure to the voters asking them to amend the Oregon Constitution to allow annual sessions.

Now just because the constitution does not currently allow annual sessions don't think for a minute that it has stopped legislators from convening every year. It hasn't. A provision allowing emergency sessions allows the Legislature to convene as often as it wants. In fact, this provision has been used seven times in the past 10 years, and five times in the year 2002 alone.

This year's session boils down to semantics and, some would say, a little creative rule bending. The question is whether it is an 'emergency' session or a 'supplemental' session under Courtney's and Merkley's test drive proposal. Critics, including Sen. Larry George of Sherwood who sued to have the test drive proposal overturned, insist this is a blatant attempt to circumvent the constitution. A Marion County Circuit Court judge ruled against George this week saying Courtney and his colleagues can hold an emergency session for any reason that they choose, including for a test drive of annual sessions.

Nevertheless, the people in George's camp have a point. While the Legislature can meet whenever it wants under the emergency provisions, the state constitution, unless and until it is changed, forbids sessions convened for any other purpose. If members of the legislative leadership are convening the upcoming session under the emergency provisions, fine, but they ought to be upfront about it and reveal the nature of the emergency - if there is one. We think they would be hard-pressed to make that argument because this 'emergency' was planned more than a year ago. If what Courtney, et al, are doing is using the emergency authorization as a fallback position for what in reality is a legislative dry run for future annual sessions, they are at fault for manipulating the process for their own self-serving and possibly illegal reasons.

Certainly a strong case can be made for annual legislative sessions, if for no other reason than to improve the predictability of budgeting. The current two-year budget cycle the state uses precludes accurate revenue and expense forecasts. For example, who could have predicted the current subprime lending scandal and consequential economic downturn two years ago when the real estate market was white hot? That could have an adverse effect on Oregon's revenue that wasn't anticipated when the Legislature met last year. The need for current information is why most cities, counties, school districts and businesses run are on annual budget cycles - they need to be able to adjust to economic changes in a timely manner. Other efficiencies might be gained as well, including a more orderly workflow, better accessibility and improved dialogue, inside and outside of the halls of Salem.

There are concerns about annual legislative sessions that need to be flushed out as well. Critics say more frequent sessions might give special interests two chances to influence legislators instead of one, and that more frequent meetings would promote more full-time, professional politicians with fewer connections to their constituents, which wouldn't be good.

Ultimately, though, it will be up to the public to decide which course is best. In the meantime, legislators have a responsibility to operate within the law it now exists, not as how they want it to read at some point in the future. R.S.