Oregon Legislature: The Two Big Ones That Got Away

Rick North Facebook

Common Cause’s Daniel Lewkow had the best post mortem: “When elected officials kill campaign finance reform, it’s an advertisement for campaign finance reform.”

“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
You just might find –
You get what you need.”

~ Rolling Stones

For the Oregon legislature, Mick Jagger was half right. Progressives sometimes got what they wanted, but in at least two cases, they didn’t get what they needed most.

With a Democratic governor and solid majorities in the House and Senate, 2015 began with high hopes. And, to be sure, there were numerous major accomplishments, most of which would have been dead on arrival under Republican leadership: driver’s license voter registration, minimum paid sick leave, easier access for women to birth control (Republican Knute Buehler helped lead on this), a clean fuels bill, minimum cost community college, reporting chemicals in children’s products, and state- sponsored retirement savings, to name just a few.

The high-profile disappointments were the failure to pass a transportation package and a higher minimum wage law. But two less visible issues stood out to me. Both threatened corporate profits and consequently had no Republican support, but Democrats were just as responsible for their demise.

SB 920 would have disallowed the routine, non-therapeutic administration of antibiotics to farm animals. This is a major cause of antibiotic resistance in humans, a crisis that causes 23,000 unnecessary deaths each year. It gets worse – we’re looking at a future where effective drugs we take for granted simply won’t work any more.

This factory farm practice has been roundly criticized by virtually every major public health and sustainable agriculture organization. But agribusiness and drug companies have stifled all reform attempts in Congress. In Oregon, the Farm Bureau toed the corporate party line in opposing SB 920 and Republicans dutifully followed suit.

SB 920 had national significance. It would have accomplished what no other state has been able to do and created a ripple effect for a major step forward in public health. But after passing the Senate Health committee on April 27, it died in the Democratic-led Senate Rules committee. Why?

I talked to numerous legislators, staffers and advocates and there were enough leading suspects to make Agatha Christie proud. Republican opposition, mistrust between the House and Senate, foot-dragging of Senate Democrats to declare their support, uncertain vote counts, competing priorities – all were cited. What was apparent was that Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate didn’t significantly support the bill.

Senate co-sponsors Laurie Monnes Anderson noted “there were a few Democrats opposed” and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, citing the session’s numerous successes, said “You have to be realistic about how much you can get through.”

For the future, House co-sponsors Peter Buckley asserted that “The science will eventually win out . . . It's our job to keep pushing to make that happen as soon as we possibly can” and Mitch Greenlick said “I will not be giving up on it.” The stakes are high. OSPIRG’s David Rosenfeld added “We’re eager to see if lawmakers can stand up to powerful interests and protect public health in 2016.”

On the campaign finance reform front, Senate Joint Resolution 5 (SJR 5) would have sent a referendum asking voters in the November 2016 election to allow campaign contribution limits. Oregon is one of only six states without some kind of limit.

Voters, frustrated with our current Democracy for Sale system, strongly support limiting campaign donations. Reflecting earlier polls, a May 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll found that 77% favored contribution limits, with Republicans wanting them almost as much as Democrats.

So how did SJR 5, championed by Kate Brown herself, lapse into a coma in Senate Rules? Here my sources were more focused, believing that Senate President Peter Courtney killed it. (Courtney didn’t answer requests for a response.) He wasn’t alone. As one legislator told me, “there are interests that prefer our current system.” Those interests could include lawmakers from both parties who favor the big money that got them elected and wealthy individuals and corporations that provide it.

Democrats threw supporters a bone by creating a task force to make recommendations on the issue. Whether it will have teeth or settle for milquetoast remains to be seen, but I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime, Common Cause’s Daniel Lewkow had the best post mortem: “When elected officials kill campaign finance reform, it’s an advertisement for campaign finance reform.”

On SB 920, corporate profits trumped public health. The legislature could have made history. Instead, it just made a point, demonstrating again the need for SJR 5.

Michael Gilmore, director of Harvard’s Program on Antibiotic Resistance, asked: “How big does this problem have to get for us to do something about it?” He could have said the same thing about campaign finance reform.

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