February 15th, 2010 5:33 pm | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Legislature

Oregon Legislators Move Toward Annual Sessions, But A Poll Shows Public Indifference To The Idea

Peter Courtney

Oregon is one of only five states in which lawmakers don't meet for scheduled annual sessions.

But moving to those annual sessions has been a particular interest among the longest-serving lawmakers such as Senate President Peter Courtney (photo above), who argue that biennial sessions are an archaic practice insufficient for the complexity of managing the state's general fund budget — $14.2 billion for the 2009-11 biennium.

Headed by Courtney (a Salem Democrat who entered the Legislature in 1981), the Legislature is meeting this month in its second scheduled "special" session (the first was in 2008) in part to demonstrate such meetings are productive.

And today, the Senate Rules Committee started the process toward making the annual sessions a permanent fixture by approving Senate Joint Resolution 41, which proposes the needed constitutional amendment to be referred to Oregon voters.

Here's the Senate Majority Office's explanation of how annual sessions would work:
SJR 41 would refer to voters a constitutional amendment establishing fixed-length, annual sessions for the state. The Legislature would meet for approximately 135 days in odd-numbered years and 45 days in even-numbered years, and for no more than 180 days over a two year period. The referral would appear on the ballot during the November 2010 election.

Annual sessions certainly seem to make sense in some ways. As the Legislative Revenue Office noted last November, Oregon is more dependent on a single revenue source—personal income taxes—than any other state. So economic fluctuations wreak havoc on budgeted revenues. Such fluctuations have required fairly regular special sessions over the past decade. Lawmakers do not plan to write an annual budget like some states do, however. They plan instead to use the shorter annual session to make budget tweaks as a full body, rather than relying on interim committees to do such work.

But there's one problem: a recent poll suggests voters are ambivalent about annual sessions, even before critics of the idea have waged any kind of campaign against it in the referral. In a poll of 500 people, only half of those who expressed an opinion support the concept:

Here's a snippet of that polling information provided to WW by a source who was not authorized to share it:
1. Let me read two statements about the proposal to have the Oregon State Legislature meet in a regular session each year. Please tell me which one statement comes closer to your point of view. (ROTATE A&B, ACCEPT ONE RESPONSE)

Response Category N=500
A. The problems facing the state are much more complex than they were when the law relating to legislative sessions was first put in place. It will be much easier for state legislators to deal with Oregon's problems, and react to them, if they have the opportunity to meet every year. OR 45%
B. Having Oregon state legislators meet on an annual basis will just mean more and bigger government, without any guarantee that things will get better. The problem is not that the Legislature isn't meeting often enough; the problem is that they are doing a poor job of dealing with our problems when they do meet. 45%
(DON'T READ) Don't know 5%

Updated at 1:45 Here's a statement from Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day) on the prospect of annual sessions:

“If the last two special sessions have been ‘trial runs' for annual sessions, they have failed the test for the following reasons:

o Prohibition of minority reports in the House of Representatives in the first ‘trial run'
o Moved significant pieces of legislation without public hearings in both ‘trial runs'
o Limited public input by going to one hour hearing notices in week two of ‘trial run'
o Formed ‘work groups' which excluded interested parties such as legislators serving in the minority
o Will limit not just time but the number of issues legislators will take up in the special session
o Institutionalizing a “hurry up” mentality, increasing the probability of unintended consequences
o Concentrating power not in the assembly, but in the majority party rulers
o Done nothing to increase transparency, accountability and inclusion

In summary, annual sessions appear to be nothing more than an opportunity to do great evil more often.”

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