The 2017 Oregon Legislature will convene Wednesday amid acrimony, political silliness and dire predictions.
This is all part of the ritual dance that launches each legislative session, as the Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, and individual lawmakers jockey for political leverage.
Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders from both parties predict this could be the most difficult legislative session in years, as lawmakers struggle to balance the state budget and develop a transportation package.
At some point — probably late spring, if this session follows the usual pattern — legislators will begin the difficult compromises on the budget and other contentious issues. No one wants a repeat of the era in which the Legislature repeatedly was called back to the Oregon Capitol to revise the state budget.
As state Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said last week, “I think everybody just needs to take a deep breath.”
Legislators can speed the political process by abandoning some of their political silliness, especially in the House, where Republicans are threatening to slow daily business.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 35-25 in the House and 17-13 in the Senate. Those numbers give Republicans little influence except on tax measures, which require a supermajority for approval.
That is why Republicans may demand that the House devote far more time to publicly reading legislation aloud, word-for-word. That would slow the legislative process to a crawl, ensuring fewer bills become law, which some Oregonians might see as a blessing. But that threat also gives Republicans a bargaining chip: Give us more of what we want and we won’t slow the process.
Whether that is obstructionism or pragmatism is in the eye of the beholder. House Republican Leader Mike McLane of Powell Butte had a fair point when he noted that the Democratic leaders in Congress also employ such “obstructionist” tactics because their party is in the minority.
Congress is an awfully low bar for comparison. Oregonians expect more of their Legislature. That includes having the majority party make concessions to work well with the minority party, and vice versa.
Republican leaders have admitted that the 2017-19 state budget will be untenable without more revenue. Democrats need Republican votes for any tax increases, which require a supermajority for passage. In return, Democrats should accept the need for continued reforms to hold down the cost of government, including the Public Employees Retirement System.
Some people want to delay PERS discussions, possibly until a special session. That is a very bad idea. Special legislative sessions come with no guarantees.
Likewise, the 2017 Legislature should meet both Democrats’ and Republicans’ needs in putting together a transportation-finance package. There is widespread agreement that Oregon must reinvest in its roads and bridges, and make its public transit systems more effective. But the majority Democrats should heed Republicans’ desire for flexibility in the state’s low-carbon fuel standards for vehicles — a flawed program that Democrats rammed through the 2015 Legislature.
Those are real issues. The sooner that legislators can get past the acrimony and obstructionism, the sooner they can make progress on those real issues.