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July 11th, 2001 Patty Wentz | News Stories
 

salem's lot

IT'S ALL OVER BUT THE CRYING (AND GLOATING)

     
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As the sun peeked over Mount Hood Saturday morning, the weary lawmakers of the 2001 Legislature headed home, six months and more than 4,000 bills after opening day. Before the gavel fell at 5:15 am, the $5.2 million school budget sailed through the House, symbolizing the unusual goodwill that prevailed this year. Still, there was plenty of drama in the final hours, when the winners shined and the losers bombed.

GOV. JOHN KITZHABER

Last Saturday, a small but valiant cluster of reporters surrounded Gov. John Kitzhaber as he sat casually at the edge of his desk in the ceremonial office for a 2 am press conference. Despite the hour, the governor's eyes, it must be said, were downright twinkly as he announced that the Republicans had agreed to support his drug plan.

On the final day of his final legislative session, Kitzhaber had reason to feel triumphant. After seven years, he'd figured out how to win over the Republicans.

First, he befriended Senate President Gene Derfler, who, like Kitzhaber, is a Salem veteran who puts ideas over partisanship.

Then, he hired an expert. While the pharmaceutical industry had almost two dozen lobbyists working to defeat the plan, the governor had The Insider. Kurt Furst, a former Merck lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and a friend of the governor, came to Salem in April. He is not an Oregonian--and he isn't as nice as Oregonians. He's used to playing hardball, and he knew what to expect from the drug companies.

Finally, Kitzhaber surprised lawmakers by abandoning his penchant for group process and playing his veto power like the ultimate trump card. In the end, House Speaker Mark Simmons buckled, leaving Kitzhaber smiling like a Cheshire cat with a bellyful of canary.

SEN. JOHN MINNIS

In the final days of the 2001 legislative session, this volatile Republican senator from Gresham surprised the hell out of everybody.

Until that point, the former state rep had been enjoying a good, but unspectacular, comeback session as a rookie in the upper chamber. No one could have predicted that the man once compared to Napoleon would emerge as a 12th-hour Jimmy Carter.

Once it became clear that Kitzhaber and Derfler were aligned on the drug-plan package, Minnis provided the exit strategy for House Republicans, who were floundering under the pressure of the governor's veto threat.

He changed the plan's name, put on a sunset date and stuck in a provision for legislative oversight. The Portland homicide detective then came up with suggestions for what the Republicans might get out of the deal--including $7.5 million for county health clinics, which had been on his wish list all session.

His plan quickly became known as the Minnis Divorce Bill because his wife, state Rep. Karen Minnis, didn't want to give ground to the Democratic governor. As House majority leader, it's her job to play partisan politics, and it seemed unthinkable to send Kitzhaber out of office with such a huge victory as he considers a U.S. Senate bid.

Sen. Minnis prevailed, however, and convinced the House Republicans that if they didn't take the deal they would end the session looking like patsies for the international drug companies.

THE BRAINIACS

While the partisan players like Rep. Dan Gardner (Democratic minority leader) and Karen Minnis (Republican majority leader) control House leadership positions, in the era of term limits, intellectuals set the real agenda. Reps. Max Williams, a lawyer with Miller Nash, Rob Patridge, another lawyer from Medford, and Lane Shetterly--who is, get this, a lawyer--proved to be the bright lights of the GOP caucus. They figured out that Kitzhaber had them beat on his drug formulary bill and convinced their party leaders to bite the bullet.

BILL SIZEMORE

There was a last-minute attempt to make life more difficult for this professional ballot-initiative circulator. House Bill 2706 would have required that petitioners get 10 percent of their required signatures before submitting their would-be initiatives to the secretary of state's office, thereby ending Sizemore's habit of ballot-title shopping.

Sen. Steve Harper (R-Klamath Falls), a Sizemore ally, refused to hear the bill, however, and withstood Sen. Ginny Burdick's last-minute effort to revive it.

REP. MARK SIMMONS

Around 4 am Saturday, Mark Simmons didn't look good. The House Speaker's face was as gray as his suit jacket. He looked tired and wan and could barely force a smile when the House members presented him with a grandfather clock to thank him for his work as the House leader.

Simmons, a heavy-equipment operator from Elgin, entered the legislative session with no plan that anyone could discern other than to nurture bipartisanship. He had no vision for the state of Oregon, and no experience with which to hold the hounds of the lobby at bay.

A more seasoned speaker would have guessed a redistricting plan that circumvents the state constitution would send the Democrats into rebellion.

A more seasoned speaker wouldn't have carried water for lobbyist John DiLorenzo's Superfund scheme.

A more seasoned speaker might not have been backed into the corner by Gov. Kitzhaber.

The gift from his partisan colleagues was telling. Everyone in the chamber, save possibly his wife, knew Simmons' time in the sun was over.

MONTREAL EXPOS

It looks like the light-hitting Canucks won't be headed to the Rose City anytime soon. Larry Campbell and his team of all-star lobbyists made a valiant effort to use state funds to back a new Portland ballpark. Son Kevin spent nearly the entire last day of the session standing outside the governor's office, making a last-minute push to tie the stadium bill to the drug formulary bill. In the final hours of the session, however, Derfler called the third strike--and the dream died.

DEMOCRACY

In one of the most bone-headed moves ever committed by voters, Oregon passed a legislative term-limits law in 1992.

The result is that big business, which is accountable not to the people but to the bottom line, has almost completely taken over the state Legislature.

Case in point: House Speaker Simmons. The man had only two sessions of experience before he took on the top House post. He was managing a $12 billion budget and 89 lawmakers while trying to negotiate with the most powerful people in the state. Simmons conceded that he was in over his head. Thanks to term limits, future Speakers will have the same lack of experience.

Contrast that with Jim Gardner, the lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. Gardner served years in the Legislature and has been a lobbyist for nearly a decade. He has the kind of experience no lawmaker in Salem will ever have again, and he used it to spin a web of inaccuracy about the governor's drug plan. Not knowing any better, Simmons bit. During the heat of the battle over the governor's formulary plan, it was Gardner, not a lawmaker, who debated Kitzhaber in front of the Senate Republican caucus.

Gardner lost, but only because Kitzhaber, a national health-care expert who has spent seven years as governor and 14 in the Legislature, teamed up with two Republican senators who learned the ropes before term limits (between them, Sens. Minnis and Derfler have served in 26 sessions). The future will bring an increased number of inexperienced elected officials who will likely end up, like Simmons, as baffled pawns of the unelected lobbyists.

 
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