Buck up, legislators.
Oregon's 73rd Legislative Assembly convened Monday in Salem in a mist of nostalgia. The leaders of the House and Senate spoke of the need to restore the Legislature's lost "credibility" and "stature." In his State of the State address, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said his greatest wish for 2005 was that it be "a year of genuine bipartisanship." This is not an auspicious beginning. Credibility, stature and unity are not goals in themselves - they are consequences of effective governance.
The biennial session opened amid a crisis of confidence for good reason. The 2003 legislative session was the longest in history, and was preceded the year before by an unprecedented five special sessions. Oregon voters struck down two legislative budget-balancing plans that relied on increased taxes. In recent decades the Legislature has become a reactive institution, forced to respond to the budgetary effects of voter-approved initiatives. Partisan rancor has steadily increased, fed by supermajority requirements for the approval of key legislation, a disruptive period of term limits and rising campaign costs.
Yet none of this excuses an attitude of woeful resignation. The Legislature retains the potential to be the most powerful branch of state government - more powerful than the governor, who must obtain legislative approval for most of his proposals and all of his spending, and more powerful than the courts, which can only respond to the actions of others. Even in the dark days of the 2003 session, the Legislature demonstrated a capacity for constructive policy-making through reforms of the state pension system and approval of a massive transportation improvement plan.
This session could be at least as productive. Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis and Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney have pledged to work together, and have already cooperated on procedural matters. They've agreed to make the legislative process more transparent and accessible by holding committee meetings in cities throughout Oregon. They will create a 30-member commission to recommend reforms of legislative operations.
A cooperative spirit can be maintained only through a sense of shared purpose. The successes of the 2003 session came when members of both chambers and both parties understood that inaction was not an option - both Oregon's pension system and its bridges needed to be fixed. A similar sense of urgency can bring legislators together this year.
There's plenty to be done. The budget needs to be balanced with less money than would be needed to sustain services at their current level - yet higher education, community colleges, social services, law enforcement and public schools would all benefit from increased state support. The Legislature must bring clarity to the new voter-approved requirement that landowners be compensated for certain land-use rules affecting their property. Same-sex unions and a proposal offered Monday by Kulongoski to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation will need attention. Health care, methamphetamine, logging on state forests, a rainy-day reserve fund - all provide opportunities for effective legislative action.
Kulongoski, Courtney and Minnis are right - there was a time when the Legislature was less partisan, enjoyed more credibility and had higher public stature. Those days can come again, sooner than some people think. With a dose of self-confidence, an ability to listen and a willingness to lead, legislators can harness the power with which the people have entrusted them and prove themselves the equals of their predecessors. Oregon needs no less.
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|Title Annotation:||Editorials; Don't mourn lost stature - restore it|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Jan 11, 2005|
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