THE 2011 LEGISLATURE is nearly halfway through the 2011 session, and, from an outside perspective, not much has been done yet. That, however, is simply the nature of any legislative session: few bills are passed in the first few months. Since February 1st, Senate and House committees have been meeting three times a day, Monday through Friday, working their way through more than 3,000 bills. In the past few weeks, more and more bills have been coming to a vote in committee and then on the floor. The pace will pick up as the session moves forward.
The song-and-dance of “How I become a bill‚” is only partially accurate; in the Oregon Legislature, the process is a bit different. Bills are introduced into either the House or Senate; in the former, the Speaker (or, in the case of this session’s split chamber, to the Co-Speakers), and to the President in the latter. Then there’s the committee process: a public hearing, with testimony taken from whoever is willing to travel to Salem at the appointed hour (or mail in written testimony), followed by a work session. Maybe. Work sessions are not guaranteed: a majority of the committee must agree to hold a session, and while they are generally deferential to each other, controversial bills can be stopped cold by blocking a work session. At the work session, final amendments are agreed upon, and then the committee votes on the bill. If it passes, it goes to the appropriate chamber for a vote of the full body — and is then sent to the other chamber where the process is repeated. Should a bill get through both the House and the Senate, the Governor will then decide to sign it. Or not.
At this point, both chambers have been working through hundreds of public hearings, working with staff and public to develop amendments that make the bill’s passage more likely, and then scheduling work sessions. Bills are now being passed in the House and Senate, which means they then go to the other chamber to work through the process on that side. Given the different politics on each side — Dems in control of the Senate with power-sharing in the House — the passage of a bill in one Chamber does not ensure a favorable response on the other side of the Capitol.
Only a few bills have been through the entire process to this point, the most notable of which was SB 301, which reconnected Oregon to the federal tax code, giving state taxpayers and businesses tax breaks at a cost of $10 million. On the House side, numerous Democrats joined with the Republican caucus to pass the bill. Area Representatives Deborah Boone and Brad Witt opposed Republican changes to the bill but voted for the final measure. The element of the bill of most immediate benefit is a tax credit for families paying college tuition.
Most of the bills being passed are non-controversial. Each session, the Legislature has to pass laws to correct mistakes in previous legislation, deal with unintended consequences, cover new or changing circumstances, or simply, as they like to call it, “house keeping‚“ a missing phrase or instruction that has resulted in problems of some kind. These bills have to go through the entire process but do so with minimal problem. Other bills that zoom through can be more notable. The bill to allow serving homebrews is a good example. Oregon homebrewers had shared their wares for years at the State Fair and other events, but the OLCC determined in 2010 that the law actually forbade this. The Leg has now corrected this gap in the law, and, with the Governor’s signature in late March, that problem has been rectified.
In mid-April, a particular deadline will hit: Bills that have not been passed out of committee will be dead. While they can be revived, so to speak, in the Rules Committee, it’s a rare and special bill that will be considered that way. Advocates are now working hard to get their bills to a vote in committee so that they can continue down the road. Opponents, especially those who sit on the committees, will be able to use delay and the calendar to stop bills they oppose. If you have a bill you are concerned about, now is the time to get in touch with backers and see what needs to be done.
Local lawmakers are in the thick of this work, of course. Rep Brad Witt recently made a passionate appeal on the floor of the House for an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. Rep Deborah Boone is keep an eye on plans to situate wave generators off the coast. Sen Betsy Johnson has been doing, as she put it, the “unsexy” work of writing budgets as a member of the Ways and Means Committee. She added that once the budgets are written, she’ll have more interesting news.
T. A. Barnhart is a regular columnist for Blue Oregon and legislative videographer.