A View From Salem

Jesse Cornett

Some Blue Oregon readers know that I work with the legislature as a major component of my job (just as some legislators know that I am a Blue Oregon contributor). For a variety of reasons, though I have at times very much wanted to, I don’t usually write about my role in the process because I think it could be problematic. Working for Oregon’s Secretary of State, we, at times, have had problems with the Republican led House. From charges that our office gerrymandered the legislative districts in 2001 to favor Democrats to blaming Bill Bradbury for Ralph Nader’s inability to follow the law and in any one instance out of three garner enough support to get on the Oregon ballot, certain legislators think my boss is too partisan. I personally think that some of those charges are funny, though, being that he did such a partisan job the Oregon House Speaker is still a Republican and Ralph Nader’s staff has admitted fraud in at least one other state (in their attempts to get him on the ballot there).

I thought as the session is winding down, and in all my free time, that I would write about the process. This will be the one and only post I write about session while it lasts and likely ever. I’ve been involved politically involved for a few years now, and worked in Salem during the 2001 legislative session, so I had a nugget of experience with this process before it began, but it was unlike anything that I’ve experienced over the past 6 months.

In all, the Secretary of State introduced 14 bills. As of writing we’ve got zero through the process. Our ideas introduces ranged from housekeeping (technical changes based on case law and other factors) and a bill to put us into compliance with federal laws pertaining to 2001’s Help America Vote Act to a bill that would have provided a mechanism for the Secretary to begin conducting performance audits on K-12 schools.

For instance, HB 2167, as with the other 13 Secretary of State bills for this session, was filed prior to the start of the session. In fact, much of the language encompassed in HB 2167-B was introduced the last two sessions. We’re trying to do groundbreaking stuff like get rid of the question on candidate and PAC statements of organization that have you indicate whether you plan for it to remain active for more than one year and codify case law from as far back as the mid 1980’s. It now appears dead. It passed the House and the Senate (with significant yet uncontroversial amendments) Instead of just concurring, the House sent it to a conference committee, and unusual move for a housekeeping bill. The clock is ticking and other priorities will likely keep a conference committee from ever meeting to change this bill. Any changes would make it other than housekeeping, anyhow.

We’ve also worked against some bad ideas and spoken in favor of some good ones. My boss doesn’t think it should be harder to register and vote and he’s spoke up at every opportunity to make that point clear, despite talking heads on the radio blasting him for doing so. Providing proof of citizenship in order to register to vote is unnecessary. One legislator even argued that requiring this proof would help make America safer in our post 9-11 existence. There are so few documented cases of non-citizens attempting to vote; they’d face deportation if they did. Would they really risk that to involve themselves in a process that a majority of citizens think is corrupt and won’t bother with themselves? To each their own, I guess. If I had free time (oh, what a nice thought), I can’t imagine how in all of the other crises occurring in our state at any given time, how in my priority matrix I’d ever get to the level of requiring people to prove they are citizens in order to register to vote, even if it were rampant.

Last week the Secretary of State’s House budget came to a vote on the floor of the House. It’s less money than the Senate version. You see, the House & the Senate, since splitting the process apart a couple months ago, have their own budget numbers that differ from one another in most cases, save the Chai Tea Board and a few other critical state agencies. Our budget had, among other cuts, a $1 million cut from our Audits division, limiting our ability to ensure accountability in government. The cut is, presumably, to fund a measure that would create a legislative audit function. Such an idea exists in other states, but here in Oregon the Secretary of State is the Constitutional Auditor and always has been.

When the budget came up, a couple of Republicans spoke in favor of it and a couple Democrats against. When the votes were cast, there weren’t enough Republicans on the House Floor to pass it, so it failed. Through procedural moves, they voted on it again this week and it passed and now it goes to the Senate. Each house has moved a budget with differing numbers to the other side. Now, it’s July 6th and there’s really no budget end in site. Is one side going to pass the other side’s budget with their own numbers, forcing a conference committee, or will each side just hold on to the others until a deal is reached and fill in the agreed upon numbers and moved them all back to the other side for concurrence? Or, even better, once there’s agreement, will they pass one big bill out that has all of the numbers crammed in?

We’ve worked closely with legislators of both parties this session, including the much-battered House Elections and Rules Committee Chair, Derrick Kitts, on a variety of issues. We don’t agree on some of the issues but that hasn’t stopped Bradbury and Kitts from working together on what they can. The Oregon House is different than it’s been recently. I think there are a lot of closeted moderates in the Republican Caucus. Where there are not moderates there are at least nice guys. Dan Doyle was replaced this session by Kevin Cameron, who is very conservative but nice. Nasty Betsy Close was replaced by Andy Olson (and while Olson seems like a good guy, frankly it would be hard to go in the other direction from Close). Randy Miller by young and also nice Scott Bruun. From Bend, moderate Republican Chuck Burley replaced super conservative Tim Knopf. Even conservative Kim Thatcher who ousted a moderate incumbent last year in a primary is willing to sit down and listen to others points of view. The House is heading in a curious direction. If it’s not getting more liberal, it’s at least getting nicer.

They just went on break until Sunday night of this week. I’ll be back in Salem then, hoping there’s some good action worth being in the building for. What’s more, though, is that I’ll be hoping there’s a budget deal struck, that makes our agency whole again, so I can end my session without having seen a single bill of note pass or have the Audits Division gutted.

And why do I do my job? Because I love it, every damn minute of it. Have I given up complete hope? No, and I won’t, not until that final gavel drops.

So, there. My one post on the legislative session. Informative? I doubt it. Enjoyable? I hope so.

  • RUNuts (unverified)

    You forgot about trying to make the initiative process harder by changing the rules on the fly and allowing votes to count from people who failed to complete their registration forms. Was that you I saw outside Benson High School closing the doors to the Nader nomination, even though the process was supposed to be open for 12 hours? Is your boss going to do anything about the people who are registered at two addresses and the large number of illegal voters?

  • TastyKake (unverified)

    Bill Bradbury is an excellent Secretary of State, a really nice guy, and over a million Oregonians agree. It doesn't make sense to me that the House Republicans still ream him about redistricting when they picked up seats, and for them to exact revenge (for a districting scheme that evidently didn't hurt them at all) by gutting audits or otherwise refusing to pass necessary legislation is just petty and stupid.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Dan Estes (unverified)

    I seriously doubt if over one million Oregon voters have any idea if Bradbury is a nice guy, or if he is a sadistic pederast. Voting for someone doesn't mean you know them. I feel confident with that assesment, since I knew Dan Doyle for years, worked with him closely, even gave his wife $50 for her campaign...and I had no idea he would pull that stunt. Oh, and I don't harbor any ill will over how things turned out with the 2001 redistricting. The D's had the trump cards of the Secretary of State's office and the Governor. If the situation had been reversed, we would have used those to our fullest advantage too. That's just how the game is played. Anything less would have been insincere. But for people to use that as an excuse to block legislation is infantile. If the legislation is bad, block it because it's bad. Block it because partisan politics is fun. But at least be straight about it.

  • McBain (unverified)

    Ya' know I don't really believe that the House is just cutting the audits from the SOS because of re-districting, I think that they really want the authority. Imagine how that would work for them strategically - have your staff audit the books of agencies - feed it to Russ Walker and let them run wild with every expenditure when it comes time for the iniative season.

    The House really does operate like a campaign organization more than one that is built to govern. Karen Minnis has been involved with ALEC for quite sometime, which is Grover Norquist's group bent on making state legisaltures inept and nasty partisan wrestling matches. Why? So, no one will trust them to get anything done and vote against whatever gets put forward.

    Ugh. I do agree with Dan, however, just be honest about what you are doing (this goes for both sides). I think it was Bud Clark who said he was running because his opponent was a "son of a bitch..." People seemed to like him, and I doubt any reporter in the room had clarify what he meant.

  • LT (unverified)

    I think this state has been blessed with excellent Secretaries of State for decades--the voters are smart.

    The voters are also smart enough that somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 don't register with a major party. I have been in that group before, and lemme tell you, talking about "both sides" is not persuasive.

    If there are legislators who are trained as auditors, that is one thing. But my guess is that the general public is not impressed by what may look to them like a political game. It may just turn out to be one more reason for people who live in districts where the winner beat the loser by a few hundred votes to start asking questions about why "those legislators couldn't balance a budget before the 4th of July".

    Who audits the legislature? My guess is that the top staffers in the Sen. President's office make less than Wilhelms, Diester, and other top Minnis staffers. But of course partisans don't seem to want to talk about that sort of thing--it is all about agencies and who supports which line item in the budget. It would also be interesting to see someone publish the cost of all the tax breaks in the Tax Expenditure Report in a version the ordinary person could understand (like answering the question of whether the 2nd home tax break could pay for a year of elementary school). But of course that is the LAST thing Norquist et al want to see--the public discussion of the cost of tax breaks!

  • Unconvinced (unverified)

    The Democrat District court judge who ruled against Bradbury wrote in his opinion that Bradbury had invented unwritten rules, departed drastrically from normal procedures and arbitrarily disqualified thousands of perfectly valid voter signatures to thwart the will of the electorate, who clearly demonstrated with their signatures that they wanted Nader on the ballot.

    The Oregon Supreme Court didn't disagree at all with any of that. They overturned the ruling against Bradbury's malfeasance simply out of deference to the Secretary of State's office, stating that the courts have no place conducting what amounts to a substantive audit of the Secretary of State's conduct of the electoral process.

    So if the courts in Oregon have decided they have no authority to check the SOS's partisan abuse of power, then who does have the authority to play that role -- the SOS itself? Anyone who thinks that is an acceptable form of check and balance in a democracy might as well pack up for Beijing tomorrow where that sort of democracy is a time-honored tradition.

    In Salem, I'm glad to hear that Republicans in the legislature, whatever their ulterior motives may be, are trying to step in to provide a check on the SOS's unchecked authority, seeing as the courts have slunk away, hearing no evil and seeing no evil, in what was once only a typically Republican-appointee verison of "justice is blind".

  • theanalyst (unverified)

    "Our budget had, among other cuts, a $1 million cut from our Audits division, limiting our ability to ensure accountability in government. The cut is, presumably, to fund a measure that would create a legislative audit function. Such an idea exists in other states, but here in Oregon the Secretary of State is the Constitutional Auditor and always has been."

    Hmmm . . . from my experience, the Audits Division is pretty much worthless.

    Several years ago I contacted the "Hotline" concerning a number of contract problems and bad business decisions in one particular public agency. These things included contracts without deliverables or scope of work, contracts that created massive conflicts of interest, huge cost overruns on system implementations, inappropriate payments to vendors, etc. I sent the "Hotline" a 50-page tabbed notebook that included about 20 pages of my own commentary and 30 pages of copies of contracts, emails, etc. The issues I raised covered literally millions of dollars of contracts and purchases.

    What happened then was . . . nothing. I would contact the "Hotline" -- certainly the world's greatest euphemism -- by email every few months, just to see if anyone still worked there. Oh, you know, they had their audit schedule, they were busy, they were working on it, etc.

    Finally after OVER A YEAR AND A HALF I received a letter of slightly more than one page in length. The Audits Division had contacted the agency in question and the agency said that there really wasn't any problem. Wasn't that nice. The letter specifically addressed only two issues I had raised, and to be honest I was utterly stunned by the stupidity of the response. In case you're interested, the Audits Division says that contracts for millions of dollars don't have to have defined scope of work or deliverables, because sometimes you don't know what you want the contractor to do for you(!?). And apparent conflicts of interest don't matter; only real conflicts of interest. I'm summarizing here, but this is basically what the letter said. This took a year and a half to produce.

    I have friends in State government who deal with the Audits Division on a regular basis. They tell me that if there is some question about some $50 petty cash fund, or some purchase for $1,000 the Audits Division is all over that. But when it came to my thing involving millions of dollars of purchases, they were missing in action.

  • Howard (unverified)

    Bradbury was initially appointed to fill out an unexpired term. We will never know if he could have been elected SOS without the advantage of incumbentcy.

  • juggler (unverified)

    You missed the worst part of of the redistricting....your egotistic boss had to renumber all the districts to start with his old district as #1...that doesn't get mentioned much. From this I's perspective, your boss isn't much better that the Rs that vie to replace him.

  • (Show?)

    I'm as cynical as the next guy, but in the five years that I've been paying close attention to Oregon politics, I have not met a politician more ethical than Bradbury. This is a man who has taken the initiative to fine his own state party (and some county organizations as well) for bookkeeping errors.

    I've met a lot of elected officials from both parties that are considerably more calculating than Bradbury. I could be wrong, but he seems like that rare breed that does his moral math before he does his political calculations.

    In any group of people there will be a few who actually are fair minded and altruistic and until I receive convincing evidence to the contrary, I'll place him in that group.

    We could do a lot worse.

  • George Bender (unverified)

    Bradbury clearly abused his authority in keeping Ralph Nader off the ballot. Apparently Democrats will not tolerate any electoral competition from their left, since they refuse to offer us any reason to vote for them.

    The state Senate, with a majority of Democrats in control, is making further cuts in an already wrecked Oregon Health Plan. They have abandoned a large part of their base, poor working-class people whose low wages require them to depend on government safety net programs.

    I no longer vote for Democrats.

    Fuck you.

  • LT (unverified)

    Until the Republicans nominate someone of Norma Paulus's caliber, the Democrats are likely to retain the Sec. of State office. It is about details, not about grand partisan statements.

  • Dan Estes (unverified)

    Bradbury has spent enough time in politics to be as partisan as the rest. Not a criticism, just an observation. He's got a good staff and I have never once had a complaint about how they have conducted themselves with me personally. The only real opportunity for partisanship is the redistricting every 10 years, and even that requires good enough judgement to pass muster in the courts. I guess you could always perpetuate waste in government by flubbing the audits, but that's really about it. However, the SoS office is just not flashy enough to draw a lot of attention that results in a high-profile race, and it's not like we Republicans have put up stellar candidates. I am always torn on the idea of putting up token resistance "just to make them spend money", and then not supporting your candidates at all. Sometimes I think we should just spare ourselves the embarassment and focus on substance over appearance. Any thoughts on the competing campaign strategies?

  • LT (unverified)

    A serious candidate who can speak on the various duties of the Sec. of State and not claim one party is better than another (esp. now there are multiple parties and all those independents) could make it interesting. Too bad Granum lost the primary to Close--that might have been interesting. Of all the jobs outside the legislature to make nonpartisan, though, this would seem to be the best one since it controls elections.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)

    Note to George Bender: Bradbury clearly used his rightful authority in not placing Ralph Nader on the ballot. Apparently Democrats will not tolerate any electoral sabotage by opportunists posing as serious candidates.

    It's easy to criticize efforts to represent working-class constituents once you take yourself out of participation in the process. Your crass language in a public forum betrays your lack of judgement.

  • Brian Grisham (unverified)

    Dan I have an idea for you-send ME $50.

  • Dan Estes (unverified)

    Hahaha...a democrat with his hand out...never seen THAT before. Then I would be out $100 and still no candidate I could support. :)

    <h2>Just kidding, Brian. Are you going to give it another go in 2006? The guy we replaced Doyle with is just as conservative, but a very decent and kind man. Still, a spirited legislative match-up is good for the body politic.</h2>

connect with blueoregon