Is it time to extend the short session?

Joan McGuire

Oregon’s short session has become a political tool.

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Until 2012, the Oregon Legislature met for a regular term session only in odd-numbered years. After voters changed the state Constitution, policy makers continued to hold regular sessions in odd years and added shorter sessions  in even-numbered years.

Six years later, the cracks in the short session model are showing. To wit:

“Top Democrats in the Oregon Senate said on Monday that the 35-day session that begins next week is too short to pass a statewide cap and pricing plan for greenhouse gas emissions.”

OregonLive, Jan. 29

“Republicans have said the five-week session should be for minor bills and budget adjustments.”

OregonLive, Feb.9

It has become common for both parties to use the 35-day session as political leverage to explain why they won’t be able to pass any legislation that year.

The minority party will also use the compressed time period to accuse the majority party of trying to ram bills through the Legislature without thoughtful debate and discussion.

The short session might work if lawmakers focused on minor tweaks to legislation adopted during the regular session.  

But the question isn’t whether legislators should postpone complex policy proposals to long-session years. At issue is whether the challenges facing this state are so great that we should hold regular sessions every year.

Oregon is a state with 4.1 million people (up 65,000 last year) and big problems: balancing the budget, PERS, education. Just as our transportation and housing infrastructure have fallen behind the region’s eye-popping growth, so too has our legislative infrastructure.

Are the deficiencies of the short session on the radar?

“It would be interesting to have shorter annual sessions” ending in May instead of July, says lobbyist Mike Freese.  “There are days where I think yes, and days where I think no.”