Can our 150-year-old state be taught new tricks?
(Soapboxes are guest opinions from our readers, and anyone is welcome to write one. Oregon State Rep. Scott Bruun, West Linn, represents House District 37.)
Next year Oregon will celebrate its 150th birthday, and all of us will have to learn to say 'sesquicentennial.' But the question Oregon citizens need to answer is, 'Should we continue to conduct state government the same way we have for the last 150 years?'
Last month the Oregon Legislature made an attempt to answer this question by conducting its first experiment with annual sessions. We met for 19 days, looked at 109 bills and ultimately passed 73. Included in the bills passed were stricter limits on drivers' licenses, increased funding for state police, limited mortgage reform, expansion of tax incentives for renewable energy projects, allowance for all-day kindergarten, toy safety and dog fighting regulation, a referral for much stronger sanctions against property offenders, and backing for a new arena in Eugene.
Some good stuff, but hardly heroic. And nothing, at least in the eye of this beholder, that in and of itself would necessitate an annual session.
But the case must be made that the particular bills deliberated upon and passed, in this last or any other legislative session, is largely beside the point. The real reason that Oregon citizens should consider embracing annual legislative sessions and other legislative reforms is to fix Oregon's lopsided balance of political power.
Let me be blunt - Oregon has a very weak Legislature. The power of the Legislature to make real change has been consistently and dramatically reduced over the last several decades. Upon cursory analysis some might suggest that this is good - less opportunity for legislative overreach.
But political power does not exist in a vacuum. If one entity loses power, it's replaced by another that gains. In Oregon, the steady decrease of real legislative power has been offset by dramatic power increases within the judiciary, the media, the executive branch, the initiative process and a host of special-interest lobby groups. In terms of real power among this group, Oregon's Legislature comes in dead last.
This calculus is disturbing, even frightening, when one considers that the Legislature is designed to be the one governing entity closest to the will and needs of the people.
Sure, bi-annual sessions made sense 150 years ago when we were an agrarian state with relatively few complex problems. Get it done in 30 days and get out! But in today's world, the issues are more challenging. Imagine trying to run a business where you only show up for five or six months every other year.
Under the current structure, the Legislature loses focus and momentum on the more complex issues like health care and transportation, and too often defaults to important but much simpler issues like dog fighting.
Another casualty of our biannual structure is inconsistent oversight of executive branch agencies. Too often, if the Legislature isn't asking the hard questions, the questions are simply not being asked. Bureaucratic lethargy desperately needs a consistent swift kick from the legislative branch - the most basic constitutional check and balance.
Meeting annually is an important first step toward addressing these problems. Even with reform, it may take some years for the power imbalance to improve. And while I believe we need to start the process, the decision to reform is a constitutional one and will ultimately be made by the people of Oregon.
We may be turning 150, but I am hopeful we can teach our old state new tricks.