An interim grouse (and warning)

T.A. Barnhart

An interim grouse (and warning)

The Ways & Means Committee voting to fund K-12.

We are in one of the Legislature’s calendar-based crunchtimes: Bills that have not been voted out of their committees of origin by the 19th are toast. Many bills have not even had a public hearing, much less a work session to adopt amendments and move to the House floor. So right now, committees are trying to blast through as much work as they can to avoid losing bills to the calendar.

For citizens, not to mention bill sponsors, this sucks (as Sen Chris Edwards would say). You might think, looking at the day’s agenda, that a bill you care about was going to get its moment, perhaps even be received favorably and moved onward. Yesterday, for example, I saw that the House Transportation and Economic Development Committee (one of many hybrids) was going to hold a public hearing on HB 2331, which would direct DOT to conduct a study on the feasibility of bicycle licensing. Well, this is a bad idea (licensing); it’s such a bad idea, a study is a waste of time and money (we have plenty of evidence on licensing, including, I believe, Medford’s failed effort).

So I went to this hearing at 1pm yesterday and signed up to testify (missing Sen Chip Shield’s committee that was looking at health insurance issues he told me were “hot”). The hearing went until 3pm, the full two hours, and HB 2331 never got a sniff of daylight. Rep Jefferson Smith’s excellent bill on the Oregon Progress Board (HB 3528) got literally the last minute of the hearing — and he made his pitch in one minute. That bill has now received its public hearing and can move on to a vote; HB 2331 is in limbo.

For me yesterday, it was a waste of two hours, the loss of an opportunity to cover issues that might have been more video-riffic, and, more than anything else, boring. I mean, my god, 30 minutes on four-wheeler classifications? And did Rep Weidner really have to take a negative stand on Salem being allowed, like ten other Oregon cities, to use photo radar? I was here; I just wasted time. But if I had been home in Portland and saw this bill on the agenda and decided to head to the Capitol to speak up as a bicycle-riding citizen, perhaps taking a personal day from (setting aside the laughable prospect of me having a job), this would have been frustrating and even a source of disillusionment with government.

Not that Chair Read (and later Vice-chair Beyer) could do much about this. Some witnesses wouldn’t shut up, but it’s tough for a legislator to tell a citizen to shut up, especially if this may be the one time in a year they participate directly in their government. Legislators, apart from the Republican Co-chair of Education, do want to hear from any citizen willing to travel to the capitol and testify. Democracy is, more than anything else, a relationship of narratives; and it’s in public hearings before Legislative committees that the conversations receive their most public openings. No one wanted to skip HB 2331, but the clock ran out the session and everyone had their next committee hearing to skitter off to.

And this is where we are right now: trying to move bills through committee. Of course, if you oppose a bill, you’re like the team with the ball and clock ticking down — and your opponent has no more time-outs. This is a simple way to defeat a bad bill; it’s also a way to allow a bill with strong support to be blockaded. It takes a majority vote of the committee for a bill to receive a work session and a vote; block that, and you block the bill. This is the undemocratic, back-handed way to affect legislation, but it’s going on daily. And take the chance of driving to Salem for a hearing or work session only to find your bill has been quietly euthanized in the back room, you might decide this democracy thing, as Sen Edwards said in other circumstances, sucks.

The Leg cannot meet endlessly. Bills, hearings and work sessions have to have time limits. This is the nature of living in the temporal universe. Most committee chairs and members do their damnedest not only to get as much as possible through committee but also to meet with advocates in their offices — not just lobbyists but activists and concerned citizens. Yet with thousands of bills and a short window of opportunity, there will always be those that fall like seed on the rocky soil (for you New Testament fans out there). If you have an issue or a bill you care about, here’s how you avoid being a victim of the calendar:

Start work early — a year early.

Build relationships with activists and legislators before the session.

Keep in touch with your bill’s sponsor so you know when problems arise.

Be prepared before the session to put out fires.

Push. Be as relentless as you are respectful.

And be prepared to come back next year. And the year after that.

Your Legislature is trying to do a good job (most of them). The conditions are tough. Be prepared for disappointment and frustration and never forget:

If you do give up, they win.

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