Annual Sessions: Are They Working?

By Chris Lehman

Until a few years ago, Oregon was one of the only states where lawmakers only met every other year. In 2010, voters approved a plan for the legislature to meet annually. But as the 2014 session ended on Friday, some Oregon lawmakers grumbled that meeting every year isn't working out the way it's supposed to.

In 2010, more than two-thirds of Oregon voters approved a measure that created annual sessions. The idea was that instead of skipping every other year, the legislature would hold a shorter session to patch up budgets and take care of other pressing concerns. Sort of like a special session on steroids. That isn’t what’s happened.

Jim Moore: "It's in effect become just like any other legislative session."

Pacific University political scientist Jim Moore says these short, even-year sessions have quickly evolved. It's not just emergency matters on the docket. Lawmakers floated proposals on marijuana, gun control, electronic cigarettes, among others. But Moore says technically, the legislature is complying with the language of the voter-passed measure.

Jim Moore: "All the measure said was, they're going to have a session, it's going to be in the even years, and it's going to be limited in time, period. That's it."

The broad range of topics popping up in Salem this year frustrated minority Republicans like state Senator Tim Knopp. He says voters were misled by ballot arguments that described annual sessions as a way of addressing crises...not making new policy.

Tim Knopp: "If it said House and Senate are going to politically position each other with policy bills for 35 days and waste taxpayer money, I'm not sure that that would have passed the people of Oregon."
Peter Courtney: "In this day and age, any time a legislative body can function at all, it's good."

Majority Democrats like Senate President Peter Courtney have a different view of things, of course. Courtney was a big advocate of annual sessions. He says there could be a few procedural tweaks in store. But he says lawmakers should never expect hot-button issues to be off the table completely.

Peter Courtney: "I don't think you're going to have a session where you don't ever consider a major bill, a major budget issue. That's inevitable."

If Oregon lawmakers want to return to bi-annual sessions, they’ll have to go back to the people for another vote. That’s not likely to happen soon.

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