Two top Democrats in the Oregon Senate last month said the Legislature's 35-day session is too short to pass a proposed "cap and invest" carbon bill.
The statements, from Senate President Peter Courtney and Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, appear to throw a wrench into plans by House Democrats to pass the complicated legislation in the short session.
Courtney's stance in particular comes as no surprise: Ever since Oregon voters approved annual legislative gatherings, he has been focused on keeping these short sessions, well, focused. For Courtney, that means taking care of budget issues, tying up loose ends from the previous session and then sending legislators home.
And that is, more or less, how Oregon voters were sold on annual sessions in the first place. When voters approved Ballot Measure 71 in 2010, the argument was that Oregon state government had become complicated enough to require annual sessions. But at least some voters were worried (and rightly so) about the prospect of legislators gathering every year for lengthy sessions.
So this compromise was struck: The longer sessions held in odd-numbered years would last 160 days. Those were the sessions to roll out complicated new bills and major shifts in policy. The longer sessions would allow those bills to get a full airing and, just as important, members of the public would have the chance to weigh in on those proposals in a meaningful way.
The shorter sessions held in even-numbered years like this one would last just 35 days. That's not enough time to give big bills the full consideration they deserve. Just as important, the short sessions move at such an accelerated pace that it's practically impossible for the public to keep track of items.
We should emphasize here that we are not yet prepared to take a position on the merits of the bill itself, which would create a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and require many of the state's largest polluters to pay for those emissions by purchasing allowances at an auction. Proceeds from the auctions would be used to reduce the financial impacts to households and fund efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
But we do think that it would be a mistake for legislators to try to push the plan through the short session. Oregon voters already are justifiably wary about major policy initiatives emerging from these short sessions: The 2016 short session, for example, featured two big pieces of legislation that should have been considered in the longer session: a bill requiring power companies to eliminate coal-fired resources from their power supply and another measure to increase the state's minimum wage.
Proponents of the carbon plan argue that its key sponsors already have laid the groundwork for it in previous sessions and in working groups convened throughout the state. But that simply is not the same as subjecting a specific proposal to the fire and fury (if we may borrow that phrase) of a legislative session.
Courtney and Burdick were correct to cool expectations for the plan, but leaders in the House said they intend to try to push it through this session. It's another sign of the strained relationship between the leaders of the Senate and the House, and it will be interesting to watch how that plays out this year.
In the meantime, it won't be as if legislators won't have business to conduct during the short session: For example, Courtney said the state faces a budget hole of $200 million to $300 million from changes in federal tax laws. That hole will need to be plugged. And other loose ends will need to be fixed. That's important work, but it's work that can be done in 35 days — maybe even sooner, if legislators keep in mind what's a proper fit for the short session.
— Corvallis Gazette-Times