Takeaway From Legislative Session: Public Safety Is Still the Third Rail of Oregon Politics

If you want to pass difficult legislation, first threaten a ballot measure.

The short legislative session that wrapped up yesterday was notable for the mammoth policy bills lawmakers passed in rapid order.

The two highest-profile bills, a ground-breaking minimum wage increase and a controversial environmental bill that substantially increases requirements for sustainable electricity generation, shared a common architecture: Both were written to negate looming ballot measures.

Expect to see that tactic repeated in future, because lawmakers fear and hate seeing policy—except for tax increases—made at the ballot box.

Another notable takeaway from the short session is that even though Democrats enjoy large majorities in both chambers, they really struggle to find consensus on public safety.

Three high-profile public safety bills, each much less ambitious and complicated than the minimum wage and renewable energy bills, died without ceremony.

Here's a brief look at them:

Grand jury recordings: Senate Bill 1550 would have required audio recordings of grand jury proceedings, where citizen panels hear testimony behind closed doors and decide whether to bring indictments. Criminal defense lawyers have sought this change for many years, and it was widely debated in the full 2015 session. Democrats came into the February session confident of a win but lost out to the still considerable influence of the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

Background checks for gun buyers: After the mass shooting at a Charleston, S.C., church last June, police determined the killer, Dylann Roof, benefited from a loophole: Because his background check took more than three days, he was allowed to buy a gun by default. Oregon lawmakers wanted to extend the waiting period here from three to 10 days, which might have seemed like a quick fix. The measure, House Bill 4147, squeaked through the House 31-28, but died in committee in the Senate.

The LaVoy Finicum bill: In the aftermath of the Oregon State Police's January fatal shooting of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupier LaVoy Finicum, the OSP sought legislation that would allow police to withhold the name of an officer in a fatal shooting if there is a credible threat against the officer's life. That measure, House Bill 4087, sailed through the House 55-3, then got marooned in a Senate committee.

All three bills died in the Senate, each for different reasons: Democrats have the numbers but lack the will to roll the DAs on the grand jury recordings; the Finicum bill runs counter to a broader movement toward transparency around police shootings; and any abridgement of gun rights, no matter how tiny, is scary.

Maybe next time, the backers of public safety bills should try promoting a ballot measure.