Editorial: Steamroller lawmaking not good for anyone (May 10, 2023)

Things are not going well in Salem.

Unfortunately, that’s not new, but it’s still disappointing.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, elected in 2020, resigned Monday afternoon after a Willamette Week  newspaper report revealed that Fagan had been working as a private consultant, getting paid $10,000 a month, by the owners of marijuana sales chain La Mota. This while the Audits Division, which reports to Fagan as Secretary of State, worked on an audit of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

That came after the third Republican walkout from the Legislature since 2019.

Republican leader Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend complained about 20-some bills, including measures on abortion, guns and transgender healthcare, calling them “hyperpartisan” in an interview with Oregon Capital Chronicle over the weekend.

Republicans say they are protesting the failure by the drafters of the bills to comply with a state law that requires bill summaries to be written at about an eighth-grade reading level.

Democrats say the other side is trying to prevent votes on bills representing such worthy causes as protection of abortion rights and transgender health care and limiting guns.

Not surprisingly, each is emphasizing the benefits or the threats they see posed in the proposed legislation, and accusing the other side of dirty tricks, misinformation, divisiveness, etc.

A real problem for us residents on the ground is the makeup of the Legislature.

Though the supermajorities of the past 20 years ended in the November election, Democrats still dominate the legislature and all of the state’s higher elected offices and Republican legislators, including our own Rep. Jami Cate, complain that a lot of legislation is being steamrolled through, without what they argue is sufficient due process.

More on that in a moment.

Obviously, part of the issue here is the contents of certain bills that seek to establish or strengthen rights to, say, abortion and “gender-affirming” care, and strengthen gun controls in the state.

Those got passed in the House last week along party lines, prompting the walkout by Republicans who say the people in power are ignoring the rules that say laws must be written clearly enough that someone with an eighth-grade education would be able to understand it.

Those arguments seem to be falling on deaf ears, as Democratic leaders say the laws are fine and that the Republicans are simply being obstructionist.

Watching this from the sidelines, it’s not hard to see there’s subjectivity in these arguments – can we truly codify what an eighth-grade reading level really is?

But we also have to say that if legislators were as concerned about the public good as they seem to be about powering these bills through with as little resistance as possible, spouting platitudes about public good, safety and welfare, we wonder how those arguments would stand up if they were facing an equal number of voting members on the other side of the aisle.

And therein lies that problem mentioned above.

Of course we expect lawmakers to stick to their principles on issues that they personally embrace and, they feel, moved voters to elect them. But legislative bodies, despite their numbers and diversity, are not immune to groupthink, and that certainly appears to be true in Oregon.

Ultimately, it’s the populace that suffers when legislators don’t do their job – no matter which side of the aisle they sit on.

When bills don’t get sufficient scrutiny, which comes with public testimony and genuine debate, bad things happen. And bad laws have happened in Oregon.

Knopp, the Senate minority leader, told Capital Chronicle, an online newspaper that provides some of the most in-depth coverage available from the capitol in this era of reduced news staffs, that he had not spoken to Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, for about five weeks and that their meetings before that were “completely and utterly worthless.”

Obviously, this is the way Knopp describes it, but other Republicans have complained about a similar lack of respect, of consideration from the other side of the aisle, nearly since the beginning of this session in January.

Republican walkouts were effective in 2019 and 2020 in preventing the passage of climate change legislation, following complaints about essentially being dissed by the the supermajority that was in place at the time.

But things are different now, thanks to the wide passage by voters of Measure 113, which was birthed and pushed by public employee unions and top Democrats as an end run around Oregon’s constitutional two-thirds quorum requirement for conducting legislative business.

The new law prevents any lawmaker with more than 10 unexcused absences in a single legislative session from running for reelection.

Fact is, voters bought it and here we are.

That means that Republicans who aren’t back on the job by Friday will be ineligible to run again.

Ultimately, the only people who can fix this are voters – primarily urban voters, who will have to wake up and see throough the happy talk and where progressive politics, which rarely serve rural interests and are modeled almost exclusively after those of our neighbors to the south and the north, are taking us.