The 2011 Legislature wrapped up work in record time and with remarkable results: surviving the 30/30 split in the House, as unprecedented as the third-term governor; building a budget to cope with a $3.5 billion revenue gap; and completing redistricting without resorting to the courts or the Secretary of State’s office. And they managed to do all this in an atmosphere that rarely strayed from the collegial and respectful.
After a month’s rest and recuperation, and a chance to meet with constituents around the districts, the region’s three members of the Legislature — Senator Betsy Johnson and Representatives Deborah Boone and Brad Witt — looked back at the session’s challenges and outcomes, both the positive and the disappointing. Not surprisingly, one thing stood out as the defining feature of the 2011 session:
“Very significant … 30/30 in the House.” Senator Johnson
“30/30 made [action] more problematic.” Representative Witt
“For the most part, the [shared leadership] experiment worked.” Representative Boone
The even split between Democrats and Republicans in the House had never happened in Oregon, so the entire session was spent inventing the wheel. All actions had to be approved by two Co-Speakers and, in committee, by two Co-chairs. The Senate had the narrowest partisan margin, 16-14 Democratic; despite the close divide of the two chambers, Johnson saw the session as being “remarkably civil”. She felt the two Co-speakers were “gentlemanly” and “overall, it was a session that Oregonians can be proud of.”
The Legislature’s priority in every session, of course, is to pass the state’s biennial budget. With the added burden of starting $3.5 billion in the hole, this task in 2011 was especially daunting. But not only did the Legislature pass budgets for the three major areas of state government — education, health and social services, public safety — they completed the biggest, for K-12 education, in April, in time to let school districts know how much funding they would receive before they completed their budgets. Historically, the education budget is one of the last things done in the session.
The budgets were, admitted Johnson, “skinny” but they did get done. She noted with pride that unlike some past sessions, and as some people feared, no major programs were shut down, including ever-threatened Oregon Youth Authority programs. Some of the outcomes were harsh, however. Boone talked about fees for accessing the medical marijuana program, which will increase from $100 a year to $200 — but for some low-income users, that increase will be from a no-longer-reduced $20 to the full $200, an increase she called “egregious”. She also pointed to recertification fees charged to EMTs that will drive some from the job. On the plus side, however, she was happy that Project Independence, which helps seniors remain in their homes, had been scheduled for cuts, but, in the end got a small “bump” in funding.
Witt termed the entire budget process as “holding the line” on issues of greatest impact to those in his district. He spoke on those issues a number of times on the House floor, most notably in March when he defended the need to extend unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless — something Legislature was able to do in spite of the budgetary challenge.
“Budgets are about priorities,” said Johnson, who served on the Ways and Means Committee, which authors all budget bills.
One outcome of the “complex process” in the House that resulted from the 30/30 split, Johnson said, was that it “whetted [both parties’] appetite for that one seat” needed for a majority. She predicted that the 2012 campaign would be “gruesome” in the chase for a legislative majority. Boone reflected, with an air of resignation, that a certain amount of gamesmanship had occurred, with committee chairs blocking action on bills they opposed, sometimes just because they could. It was a state of affairs no one wants to repeat in future sessions.
Bills on social issues were introduced in 2011, as usual, but, said Boone, there was an unspoken agreement early on that “huge, far-reaching” bills were not going to move forward. She didn’t think that was a bad thing necessarily; it would force backers to continue work in education at the local level before trying to “slam them out” in the Legislature.
Johnson, when asked about how the district fared in the session, said that “we were ok” because many needs had been met in previous sessions. Capital construction funds for the two community colleges had already been secured. Boone, in speaking about her district, while glad that several projects in regard to wave energy had been funded, also noted that the major experimental project was currently blocked from using the power it produced. “I hope to fix that in February,” she said, referring to next year’s short session.
One achievement of which Witt was proud was his landmark bill to block the sale or possession of shark fins. The fins are used in soup and are in worldwide demand; however, fins are supplied not by fishing the entire shark but by cutting off just the dorsal fins and throwing the maimed creature back into the sea. Witt’s bill helps set a precedent for banning the practice that he expects to see grow, including in Canada.
And all three were happy to see the upgrade in the Bottle Bill.
The three legislators wasted no time following the end of session in meeting with constituents. Johnson held town halls in both House districts with the two representatives, meeting from Tillamook to Astoria (“I want to give them kudos for getting the most people … on a Sunday morning … incredibly well-informed”) to Sauvie Island. Issues covered health care, bicycles, the Oregon Bank, ESDs, all-day kindergarten, kicker reform, emergency preparedness on the coast, BPA in sippy cups, marijuana and more. She was surprised that the Liquid Natural Gas terminal only came up once, and just in a general conversation about Oregon being an exporter of natural resources.
All three legislators are now back into their non-legislative lives. Brad Witt is on the campaign trail, seeking the Democratic nomination to replace David Wu in Congress. The timing of the election means that either he’ll retain his House seat if he loses the primary or general special election — or his district will have to pick his replacement in early February 2012 if he wins. And that will be while the Legislature is in session.