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Nonpartisan lawmakers?

Byline: The Register-Guard

FORMER OREGON Secretary of State Phil Keisling first raised the notion of a nonpartisan Legislature last fall. His reasoning was that last year's five special legislative sessions were mostly ineffective because of high-octane partisanship that permeated the lawmakers' deliberations.

Keisling asked this question, which went to the core of the issue: "Would electing and organizing the Oregon Legislature on a nonpartisan basis be any worse than the way we do business now?"

Keisling's idea has touched a nerve in the Legislature itself. Senate Bill 380 has been introduced by Sen. Steve Harper, R-Klamath Falls, and seven other lawmakers - two Republicans and five Democrats. Among the co-sponsors is Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield. The others are Sens. Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton; Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin; and Avel Gordly, D-Portland; and Reps. Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls; Jeff Merkley, D-Portland; and Cliff Zauner, R-Woodburn.

The bill can kick-start a serious debate on the degree to which party labels lead legislators into partisan gridlock, and whether removing the labels would improve matters.

Under the bill, the offices of state senator and state representative would be re-classified as nonpartisan. Non-partisan offices are common in Oregon, at both the state land local level - county commissioners, city council members, school board members, judges, the state superintendent of public instruction and the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries are already non-partisan.

Party affiliation provides voters with a shorthand means of categorizing candidates - but what really matters to voters is a candidate's views on public issues, which can be readily ascertained without a party label. Moreover, fully a quarter of Oregon's voters are unaffiliated with any party, having registered as independents. And last year's special sessions provide ample evidence that partisanship undermines the Legislature's ability to address the state's fiscal problems.

It seems likely that making the state Senate and Oregon House non-partisan would diminish the partisan battles and encourage lawmakers to find common ground. Alliances would still be formed along ideological lines, and clusters of conservative, liberal and moderate legislators would emerge. But a nonpartisan Legislature might result in the body's political center having more clout and the ideological purists having less.

Under SB 380, legislative positions would be filled in the same manner as other nonpartisan offices. Candidates would file to run in the May primary election. Any candidate who gains a majority vote in the primary would be unopposed in the fall. If no candidate gained a majority in the primary, a runoff between the top two finishers would be held in the November general election.

SB 380 might not transform the Legislature into a cozy club of like-minded people, and Oregonians would not wish for such a result - it's vital that public-policy differenced be vigorously expressed. But it could diminish the partisanship that far too often produces political warfare instead of consensus-building. This year's lawmakers should seriously consider whether Oregon should join Nebraska, the only state that currently has a non-partisan legislature.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:New bill would change partisan system; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Feb 18, 2003
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