Lawmakers propose annual sessions

SALEM — Here's the long and short of legislative sessions: Oregon lawmakers want to meet every year, and they want voters to make it official.

Since Oregon became a state, its constitution has called for legislators to meet every other year, but sessions have become longer and more frequent, with meetings often held every year. Now, legislators are moving to lock in the annual sessions with a proposed November ballot measure that would amend the constitution to require long sessions in odd years and shorter ones in even years.

The sessions would be limited to a total of 180 days every two years.

Proponents said the change would strengthen the Legislature and allow it to respond more quickly to changing economic conditions.

The Senate Rules Committee voted Monday to approve the proposed amendment. It has strong backing from majority Democrats and is expected to garner substantial Republican support.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney has pushed hard for annual sessions. During the current special session, he's missed few opportunities to point out actions such as extending unemployment benefits that lawmakers accomplished because they were in Salem.

Courtney told the Senate Rules Committee the Legislature has been eclipsed in government by the executive branch, initiative sponsors, lobbyists, judiciary and even the media.

"The Legislature meets so infrequently I think there is this vacuum, and it is being filled by other institutions and other forces and sources ... and I don't think that's in the best interests of the way we govern ourselves," he said.

The proposed amendment "gives people a chance to take back the statehouse," he said.

The measure would allow the Legislature to meet for more than four months — 135 days — in odd-numbered years to do most of its business, including drafting the state's two-year budget.

In even-numbered years, the Legislature would meet for briefer sessions of up to 45 days. Adjusting the budget would be a primary purpose of those sessions.

Most states have moved from an the every-other-year model that was common when the country was more rural.

Oregon is among five states with legislatures that have a two-year model, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The others are Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas.

Republican Sen. Jeff Kruse of Roseburg doesn't oppose annual sessions but said the costs of staffing the Legislature and the impact of making members de facto full-time lawmakers should be spelled out before it goes to voters.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, a member of the Rules Committee, voted against sending the measure to a vote.

He said it would put more power in the hands of legislative leaders, reducing openness and accountability. The courts might find such extensive constitutional changes require a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the Legislature, rather than simple majorities, he said.

Supporters say the schedule would result in the Legislature spending fewer days in session than in recent years. Republican Sen. Jason Atkinson of Central Point cited one tally showing lawmakers averaged 190 days every two years for the past decade.

In that time, some regular sessions extended into the summer, and special sessions became a regular occurrence.

In a budget free-for-all in 2002, legislators did five special sessions. In 2006, they had a one-day session to allocate more money for schools and human services, and to put curbs on payday lenders.

Under the proposed amendment, sessions could be extended in five-day increments. Doing so would take two-thirds votes in both the House and Senate.

The measure would also allow the Legislature to schedule an organizational session when bills could be introduced but not passed.

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