The past three years have been a tale of two very different legislative processes.
Following the 2010 elections, the Oregon House of Representatives was evenly divided at 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans. The Senate was nearly even at 16 Democrats and 14 Republicans.
For two years we worked together in near bipartisan harmony. Neither party had enough votes to force an issue through the legislative process. Extreme conservative and liberal issues were shelved. We focused on policy issues where broad two-party agreement was possible. Budgets were balanced with existing revenue. The most savings were set aside in recent Oregon legislative history. Oregonians were much better served by our cooperative efforts.
That bipartisan brinksmanship virtually ended following the 2012 elections. The recently adjourned 77th Legislative Assembly was undoubtedly the most partisan and rancorous that I have experienced in my nine years of service in the Oregon Senate.
According to numbers published by the Oregonian, both House and Senate Democrats voted with their party more than 98 percent of the time. At the same time, Republicans were more independent voting with their party on about 86 percent of the bills. I supported my party position on a little less than 80 percent of the votes.
The House now stands at 34 Democrats and 26 Republicans while the Senate maintained the same 16 Democrat and 14 Republican split. The new majority appeared to believe that they could push virtually any policy or budget issue through the legislative process. They certainly tried!
Scores of extreme liberal and partisan issues were taken off the shelf, dusted off, and introduced. These “new concepts” included environmental regulations, green energy promotion, enhanced labor laws, oppressive business regulation, “improved” election processes, unbridled growth of state entitlements and a plethora of other issues designed to grow Oregon government and regulate our citizens. Not least, a multitude of new and expanded taxes and fees were brought forward to pay for all of these “needful things”.
Issues important to the minority party were uniformly ignored. Most were not afforded the courtesy of a public hearing. In fact, by our count only seven percent of the bills that were enacted were chief sponsored only by Republicans. Many of those bills that were passed were non-controversial memorials and resolutions.
From my minority perspective, both the best, and the worst features of the 77th Legislative Assembly were the things that “did not happen”.
The bad things prevented, largely through the work of Senate Republicans and the Senate Bipartisan Caucus that I organized in 2007 included:
No new taxes were levied. The Oregon Constitution requires a 3/5 majority vote to enact a tax. Our 14 Republican Senators successfully stood together to block all attempts to increase taxes.
Fee increases were few, modest, and generally limited to legitimate inflationary increases
No new gun laws were enacted! Efforts to enact laws banning semi-automatic rifles, regulating magazine size, increasing liability for gun owners, restricting where guns can be legally carried, and increasing gun registration requirements were all defeated by our Senate Republicans and Senator Betsy Johnson, the courageous Democrat from Scappoose.
A bill to require automatic registration to vote, when a drivers’ license is issued, was defeated on the Senate floor. This “motor voter” law would have “computer registered” as many as 90,000 people to vote in Multnomah County alone. The bill even allowed the Secretary of State to authorize non-government organizations to officially register Oregon voters. Once again, Senator Johnson was the deciding 15th NO vote!
No further increases in abortion rights were enacted. Oregon already has the most permissive abortion laws in the nation. Planned Parenthood made five attempts to make those laws even more permissive. They failed, five times.
No meaningful effort was made to further erode the institution of marriage. However, a ballot measure may be coming forward, to functionally repeal the Measure 6 constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a bond, between one man and one woman.
Bills to enact new carbon cap and trade taxes, and to extend the low carbon fuel standard, were defeated by our bipartisan coalition. Make no mistake, unilateral enforcement of these concepts would kill myriad Oregon private sector jobs.
At least four bills, designed to restrict private property rights, by expanding Oregon scenic rivers, and by increasing State ownership of the beds and banks of rivers through enlarging navigability, were soundly rejected.
Senator Dingfelder’s perennial Ecosystem Services bill was, yet again killed, by our bipartisan coalition. This bill is a perfect example of the axiom that “no bad idea” is ever dead in Salem. It would essentially require payment of mitigation fees to the state for the use of Oregon’s air, water and land resources. In my opinion, this idea has the potential to destroy more private sector jobs than any other environmental preservationist scheme introduced to date.
Bills that would have made Oregon “toxics” regulations the most stringent in the nation were held back and defeated, by our bipartisan coalition. Passage of these unneeded and job killing bills, would have further eroded our ability to create and sustain the businesses that provide family wage jobs for Oregonians.
The good things that did not happen in spite of our efforts include:
The Legislative leadership simply would not allow the meaningful restructuring of the Public Employee Retirement System. I know for a fact that the votes were there in the Senate, and I believe there were enough votes in the House as well. Those in Democrat leadership simply would not confront the public employee unions, with the reality that PERS is broken, that the System is no longer affordable, and that it will collapse under its own weight, if not restructured.
Every effort to enact legislation to improve Oregon’s dismal business and job situation was rejected by Democrat leadership. They truly believe that growing government ever larger, and more intrusive, is the answer for all of Oregon’s ills. A new bipartisan, bicameral “Jobs Caucus” was formed to address the issues; however, our recommendations were uniformly ignored by majority party leadership.
In spite of the fact that Oregon had at least two billion dollars more to spend, in general fund and lottery revenue, than ever before in history, Democrat leadership resisted every effort to increase savings. Not only did they spend it all, but they used some pretty “creative accounting” to redirect money, from what should be secure funds, to the general fund, where they could spend it on “needful things”.
Finally, at the end of the 2012 legislative session, Governor Kitzhaber promised to create a task force to solve Oregon’s extreme “tort liability” problems. His effort was lacking, the task force’s scope was limited, and the results were that once again “no tort reform” was enacted.
Serving in the minority is not much fun. The majority party won the elections, and they ran their own agenda. There are parts of that agenda that we support, because they make sense and are good for Oregon. Other parts of their agenda are anathema to our principles, are not good for Oregon’s future, and simply cannot be supported.
With some new members, our 14 Senate Republicans were much more successful at holding together. We created a “bad bill” list that was altered and refined as bills were amended and combined during the legislative process. We worked daily with our Democrat bipartisan caucus members to further refine our list. This enabled our Senate Bipartisan Caucus members to make their votes count. Together, we were able to find that magical 15th “NO” vote enough times to make a real difference. In fact, more than 80 percent of the measures on the “bad bill’ list were either defeated, or were amended to create relatively harmless study groups or task forces.
In short, we created our own bipartisan coalition with enough votes to preform significant damage control. We believe that Oregon voters are better off for our efforts.
By Senator Whitsett