Salems conduct gets a timed test
Oregon legislators have much at stake when they convene in Salem on Monday.
This is a historic moment because the 2008 legislative session, which is supposed to last only one month, represents the first time the Oregon Legislature has held what is in effect a planned annual session.
The idea behind this trial run is to show citizens that the state's business can get done better in shorter annual sessions, rather than holding marathon sessions every two years.
But there also are risks that come with trying a new system. One is that lawmakers will get bogged down in election-year partisanship and squander their chance to engage in a more efficient method of governing.
Another even worse and more likely scenario is that legislators will enter the session timid, in fear of harming their re-election chances - and do nothing.
Address short list of issues
We believe lawmakers can advance several worthwhile legislative objectives. But to do so, they must place common sense before politics and concentrate on outcomes that make a measurable difference to citizens. Priorities that ought to receive bipartisan support include:
• Providing protection against the most egregious practices in the mortgage industry. This doesn't mean passing onerous laws that give advantage to out-of-state mortgage companies over in-state firms. It does mean stopping the so-called 'mortgage rescue' scams that serve to victimize homeowners who are about to go into foreclosure.
• Freeing $4.1 million in funding to hire enough state troopers to provide 24/7 coverage on Oregon's highways. This is particularly essential for rural counties that are losing federal timber-replacement dollars and are seeing their own public-safety budgets decimated.
• Restoring full funding to the Big Look task force. Charged with reviewing the state's 35-year-old system of land use planning, it was put on hold by the governor and the Joint Ways and Means Committee.
Full funding should come with a condition: The task force must completely engage Oregonians in a discussion of the importance of land use planning and reforms that will serve the state, its communities and economy over the next 40 years.
• Improving oversight of the Oregon State Hospital and how it serves the mentally ill. The hospital's condition and operation recently have been castigated by a federal Justice Department investigation.
Lawmakers plan to build a new mental hospital in Salem in 2011 and a smaller facility in Junction City in 2013. But as the feds learned, problems exist in how the state treats its mentally ill.
• Giving school districts clear authority to offer tuition-based, full-day kindergarten programs. The eventual goal must be to provide free full-day kindergarten to all Oregon children.
In the meantime, the Legislature must resolve the conflict between a recent Oregon attorney general's opinion and the practices of many local school districts.
• Restoring full funding to Oregon Project Independence, which allows senior citizens to receive care in their own homes.
Biennial sessions outdated
It's time for Oregon's 150-year tradition of biennial sessions to come to an end. If lawmakers can address this list - plus make a start on other selected priorities such as tort reform - they will have done much of what citizens expect from an abbreviated legislative session.
But to institutionalize annual sessions, legislators will need to persuade voters to approve a change in the state Constitution. Lawmakers can gain voter confidence by how well they conduct themselves in the February minisession.