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Short Session Not Ideal: Legislators agree it must be re-tooled 

Legislators meet in Salem for a short session.

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Midway through last week, I gassed up my car, turned on the four-wheel drive and pointed myself toward the snowy Santiam Pass and Salem. It was a chance to put myself in the shoes of the legislators from Central Oregon who've made this drive almost every week since the beginning of February when the state embarked on its first crack at annual sessions.

The expectations were high - wade through 270 bills, fix a roughly $300 million budget shortfall and do it all in just 35 days.

What I found on the other side of the mountains was widespread discontent with the ability of the legislature to reach those goals in a truncated session and strong beliefs that Salem must dramatically re-tool its approach to off-year sessions.


"I'm in favor of annual sessions," said Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend, "but not this short."

Among the problems with the session was the lack of time to vet, or even read, bills. A major concern is that there's often little or no time for citizens to provide testimony. And with nearly every politician's seat up for election next fall, the backdrop to the entire session is a highly charged political environment where negotiations take a backseat to grandstanding. The result has been a difficult session that eeked out compromises at the 11th hour, but only after nasty spats, tears and a diluting of the bipartisan cooperation that's come out of recent sessions.

BAD LEGISLATION

I met Chris Telfer and her staffer, Tiffany Telfer, who is also her daughter, for breakfast at Word of Mouth, a little bistro down the street from the capitol building, to talk about the lessons learned. Outside it was snowing, which heightened the gloom hanging over legislators as it became clear no one was going home that Wednesday, the date the session was originally scheduled to end.

As we were talking, Rep. Sarah Gelser, D-Corvallis, jaunted up the wet concrete stairs of the café. She blew in and the women all said a cheerful hello.

"Are you ready to go home?" asked Gelser, rolling her eyes.

"Oh, yeah," said Chris Telfer, shaking her head. "Oh, yeah."

It's not that these women don't want to be working. It's that the short session is so deeply flawed that every single politician I spoke with in Salem just wanted the experiment to end.

One of the main issues with the session is that it's caused committees to churn weak and problematic bills onto the floor, leaving both Democrats and Republicans to vote in favor of bills they believe are flawed but that address core issues about which they care.

On that particular morning, the bad legislation was a gun bill, which Chris Telfer said illustrates everything that's wrong with the session.

If passed, the bill would have prohibited guns on school grounds. It's come to the floor just days after a school shooting in Ohio and is widely opposed by both Democrats and Republicans because of questions about whether it would actually make schools safer.

But the bill, which was sponsored by a Democrat, was up for a vote as a quid pro quo after a Republican sponsored gun bill made it to the House floor for a vote. The Republican bill, which ultimately passed, prevents the release of the names of concealed handgun permit carriers.

Gelser described her, and other Democrats', dilemma. Voting against the bill meant voting her conscience, but that would go against her constituents' general beliefs about gun control issues.

"I don't want to vote for this," she said. "[But] try explaining that to my district."

The short timeline of the session is to blame for the bill working its way to the floor without being fully vetted, said Chris Telfer.

The school gun bill, which was eventually voted down in the House, had also come out of committee just the afternoon before, leaving legislators little time to read it and almost no time to consult with constituents.

"That's the problem with these short sessions," said Chris Telfer. "Thirty-five days is just not enough time to do good legislation."

NO TIME FOR INPUT

It wasn't the first time in the session that Chris Telfer has found herself frustrated by the short turnaround time.

Over her French toast, she told a story about an elderly couple from Bend who wanted to testify on a bill regarding elderly tax deferral issues. The bill would have allowed seniors to defer paying some taxes. The wife and her disabled husband had hoped to come to Salem to testify, but a hearing on the bill was not scheduled until the night before it was to happen. The night was snowy and the pass dangerous. They just couldn't get to Salem to testify, said ChrisTelfer.

"You cannot deny the person the ability to testify," said Chris Telfer. "The people here don't understand what it's like for people to get here who live far away."

Chris Telfer, who often punctuates her words with gestures, threw up her hands in disgust.

Her exasperation at the flaws of the session are widely shared.

"It's ridiculous," said Sunriver Representative Gene Whisnant. "We risk that we make mistakes."

Jason Conger's office is located down the hall from Whisnant's on the fourth floor of the capitol building. Because of the short session, most offices here are sparsely decorated and generate a living-out-of-a-suitcase feeling with few touches of home on the white walls and oak desks.

"It's a little chaotic," said Jordon Conger, Representative Jason Conger's son and primary staff person for the session. "And it's more politicized."

This politicized side effect was something legislators wondered about prior to the session. Would the short timeline generate quick compromises or would it force the parties to get nasty, bicker and destroy some of the bipartisan camaraderie created during recent sessions when difficult financial questions forced the parties to work together?

As an indicator of the answer to that question, last Friday House Republican Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, told Democrat Carolyn Tomei, D-Milwaukie, to "shut her mouth" after she strayed from the topic at hand. She demanded an apology, but Krieger instead said she owed the House an apology.

When House co-speaker Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, closed the dramatic session on Friday, he had tears in his eyes, according to a report from The Oregonian.

"With the longer session, people are more willing to work together," said Jordan Conger. "[With the shorter session], we don't have time to work things out."

In addition to this, all of the House seats and half of the Senate seats are up for grabs next fall. With a deadline for filing for office on Tuesday, March 6, the coming election season was on everyone's mind, leading to grandstanding and more frustration over lost time.

SOLUTIONS AVAILABLE

There are solutions to the short-term session problem, though, and lawmakers will likely make changes during the next legislative session.

The easiest fix will be limiting the number of issues on the table during short sessions.

Jason Conger said the House and Senate rules committees can make the most reasonable changes by limiting the number of issues on the table by "self regulating the scope of what we try to take on."

For instance, legislators were each permitted to directly sponsor two bills. Committee chairs were permitted to bring five bills in addition to their personal bills. The governor and other state officials could also bring priority legislation to the fore. In total, legislators considered 270 bills this term.

"I found it extraordinarily difficult," said Jason Conger of the ability to understand and fully vet bills before the House.

Limiting the number of bills each legislator brings forward would be a good first step, said Conger.

There is another more long-term solution, as well: Lengthen the session.

That's an expensive and time-consuming prospect, but every legislator I spoke to believes this is the real fix.

STILL A SUCCESS

Regardless of the problems, there was progress on important issues. The budget was balanced. Health care and economic development legislation passed.

Some regions also did particularly well, including Central Oregon.

"I would say we exceeded our expectations for sure," said Tiffany Telfer, of the wins for Central Oregon.

Several jobs related bills passed that benefit the area, including the so-called Facebook bill that will continue to encourage data storage centers to locate to Prineville's enterprise zone.

Two bills pushed by Senator Telfer create the opportunity for job creation in Redmond - one rezones 465 acres as shovel ready industrial development land, the other permits the sale of revenue bonds for research and development.

Central Oregon Community college will receive $500,000 based on the sale of lottery revenue bonds. And the Bend DMV can finally settle in. Lottery bonds will pay for a remodel at the current location that should solve ADA and other access issues.

"Central Oregon definitely took home a handful of wins," said Tiffany Telfer.

Legislators next task will be finding a way to make the short session itself a winner.

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