Annual sessions?

Rep. Scott Bruun (R-West Linn) asks a good question about annual sessions in the Oregonian's editorial pages:

Should we continue to conduct state government the same way we have for the past 150 years?

In particular, he notes that a part-time Legislature is a weak Legislature - that leaves power in the hands of unelected players:

The real reason that Oregonians should consider embracing annual legislative sessions, as well as other legislative reforms, is to fix Oregon's lopsided balance of political power.

Let me be blunt: Oregon has a very weak Legislature. The power of the Legislature to make real change has been consistently and dramatically reduced over the past several decades. Upon cursory analysis, some might suggest that this is good -- less opportunity for legislative overreach.

But political power does not exist in a vacuum. If one entity loses power, it's replaced by another that gains. In Oregon, the steady decrease of real legislative power has been offset by dramatic power increases within the judiciary, the media, the executive branch, the initiative process and a host of special-interest lobbying groups. In terms of real power among this group, Oregon's Legislature comes in dead last.

This calculus is disturbing, even frightening, when one considers that the Legislature is designed to be the one governing entity closest to the will and needs of the people.

After all, Oregon is a much more complex place to govern than it was a century ago:

Sure, biennial sessions made sense 150 years ago when we were an agrarian state with relatively few complex problems. Get it done in 30 days and get out! But in today's world the issues are more challenging. Imagine trying to run a business for which you show up for only five or six months every other year.

Under the current structure, the Legislature loses focus and momentum on the more complex issues such as health care and transportation, and it too often defaults on important but much simpler issues such as dogfighting.

Another casualty of our biennial structure is inconsistent oversight of executive branch agencies. Too often, if the Legislature isn't asking the hard questions, the questions are simply not being asked. Bureaucratic lethargy desperately needs a consistent swift kick from the legislative branch -- the most basic constitutional check and balance.

Read the rest. Discuss.

  • JTT (unverified)

    Bureaucratic lethargy desperately needs a consistent swift kick from the legislative branch -- the most basic constitutional check and balance.

    I think this is the best argument that the Legislature has with the voters on annual sessions. Frame the issue of annual sessions as providing more of a legislative check against an unelected executive bureaucracy run amok. An annual session (even year) should be about retooling the biennial budget and holding the executive branch accountable and ensure that they are adequately implementing recently enacted law. Too often bureaucrats forget that they "execute" the law and that the Legislature "legislates"...not the other way around. If the Legislature can be effective in providing Bruun's "swift kick"s during an annual session, I'm all for it.

  • Uh-Oh (unverified)

    Wow! A Repubnican posting at B.O.? What's next...An unsigned copy/paste of the latest Betsy Johnson hit piece from the Oregonian. I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

    Maybe we could get Anne Coulter to write something about gun control. Or all the things she likes about Barack Obama. That would be fun.

    I would rather convert the Gubernatorial function to part time than see a full time legislature in Oregon. That would help to level the incompentence balance of power. I'm afraid we will wind up with all the government we deserve if we let the peanut gallery meet every year.

    How about this: every time they pass a new law, they have to retire an old one. Zero sum government encroachment on private citizens.

    Seriously, though: I like Bruun. Rugged good looks and smart too.

  • JTT (unverified)

    "than see a full time legislature in Oregon."

    Um, who said full time?

    While the legislature doesn't need to be in session year-round, it needs to be able to do the people's business and provide oversight of the executive. It's called a balance of powers and right now there isn't any. (BTW...your tone sounds trollish, can't tell if you're serious or not).

  • rblackwe (unverified)

    The more important point that Rep. Bruun raises is how much the professional lobby is really the legislature's institutional memory. There's really two subject matter experts for a given issue, the agency (in all the cases I've seen, the agency works hard to give the legislature the information they need) and the lobby (which as far as I know does the same). Still, the legislature could use its own professional staff and meet more often. It could only mean good things for the state.

  • (Show?)

    Wow! Repubnican posting at B.O.?

    Well, before the lynchmobs set after Rep. Bruun, it should be noted that he didn't ask for us to cover his editorial in the O. We just did it.

    That said, it's a perfectly worthwhile discussion - and one that doesn't necessarily break along party lines.

  • Uh-Oh (unverified)

    Not a troll, or a Democrat.

    The "idea" of citizen legislators, who have their own direct connections to life outside of government, is very appealing. I don't know how that idea translates into practice. I certainly think Bruun fits that definition.

    I am more concerned about the impact of lobbyists on annual sessions: the legislators would simply be that much easier to find, and the lobbyists would be more than happy to help them fill the time.

    We ought to pay our elected officials more, if only to discourage them from being tempted to accept less transparent honoraria (legal or not). I would pay them a higher wage irrespective of how often or how long the legislature convenes. By comparison, police officers in Mexico (and New Orleans) are notoriously corrupt, partly because they are underpaid.

    I also think we could draw on larger pool of qualified candidates if the position offered something more than starvation wages. Granted, that would diminish some component of the "citizen legislature" formula.

  • (Show?)

    UhOh -- Actually, the question is about how much time a lobbyist spends with a legislator... it's about how much power they have.

    Information is power. Right now, the lobbyists have all the information. They've got all the research and the data, and they've wonks churning out "model" policy and legislation.

    If we had full-time legislators with full-time staff, they could be working on research, and policy, and legislation. Power would shift back.

    That, btw, is the lesson learned from Jess Unruh - the famous Speaker of the California Assembly... who moved their Lege to full-time (in the 50s) precisly because the lobbyists had all the information.

  • (Show?)

    Kari, do you really think lobbyists don't have power in California? California, to a lessor degree than Oregon, is like Oregon in that their leg is hamstrung by initiatives and, worse than Oregon, they need a supermajority to pass a budget!

    If folks like Bruun and Kari want the Leg to have more power look to meaningful initiative reform. The initiatives, poisoned by the money that controls them, and the ease of citizen referral, also poisoned by the money, has taken the power from the Leg - or at least that's what too many legislators have come to believe. Make it harder to get things on the ballot and give the Leg a meaningfull bite or two at the apple before subjecting the voters to the measures, and then the Leg will have more power.

    And speaking of limiting power of the leg, does any one know whether Bruun supported the term limits measure in '06? The lobby generally didn't like term limits because - sorry Kari - the lobby doesn't get to vote and wants informed legislators, not a whole new crop every few years.

  • (Show?)

    Of course lobbyists have plenty of power in California. But the great progressive era in that state (late 50s to early 70s, until Reagan) was, in part, made possible by the shift to a full-time Legislature.

    And yes, definitely: initiative reform is critical.

    Term limits: That's true, the lobbyists didn't like term limits either - but because they've already "invested" in and "educated" one set of legislators.

    I'd rather have full-time legislators with full-time staff and professional compensation, and not subject them to term limits - so that over time, expertise can develop.

    You know I'm a fan, Chuck, of the OCPP -- but I'd much rather have you parked in the Lege as a full-time chairman of Ways & Means for the next 15+ years, and compensated appropriately. Wouldn't that be fun?

    And I prefer Lege, not Leg. The 'e' makes the pronunciation of the 'g' correct - and besides, it's an homage to Molly Ivins.

  • LT (unverified)

    Chuck, PCOL discussed a lot of proposals to rein in initiatives, but what is the chance of those or other reforms happening in the near future?

    Kari, Don't talk about California Governors --you said(late 50s to early 70s, until Reagan) without being sure of the dates. Ronnie baby got elected in the mid-1960s (joke during his presidency was he gave a job to Don Regan to finally quell the distinction that his friends called him Reagan, but his adversaries called him Ronnie Reeegan--and that was how one knew if someone talking about him was friend or foe) and left the Gov. office in the mid-1970s.

    Actually the first progressive era in California was about 100 years ago---a close friend wrote his Masters Thesis on the Lincoln Roosevelt Republican League which broke the railroad machine in California. We were in college in California 40 years ago, and Ronnie R. was a topic of many jokes.

  • Miles (unverified)

    If we had full-time legislators with full-time staff, they could be working on research, and policy, and legislation.

    I couldn't agree more, but "annual sessions" and "full-time legislators" are two different things. Adding an annual session while still paying dismal wages and not allocating an adequate staff budget won't solve the lege's biggest problems. And I'm tired of hearing about the "power" of lobbyists. The only power lobbyists have is the power voluntarily given them by legislators. A good legislator questions the information he/she receives from lobbyists (as Ben Cannon was criticized for doing in WW's lege rankings). A bad legislator -- and there are lots on the Democratic side -- takes the information at face value.

    There are three reforms that would help our state: higher pay/budgets for legislators, longer annual sessions, and initiative reform. But to be effective they have to be put into place simultaneously. And none of them has a chance unless we start by changing the anti-public sector sentiment that is so prevalent in Oregon.

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