The test drive of annual legislative sessions is over. For the most part, we'd call it a success.
For starters, lawmakers wrapped up the short session a full week early. Granted, only 109 bills were considered, compared with closer to 3,000 in a regular biennial session. But any time legislators leave town ahead of schedule, it's cause for celebration.
Critics of the annual-session concept — mostly minority party Republicans — groused that little of real substance was accomplished. But some of the measures, though few in number, were important:
- Lawmakers voted to require proof of citizenship from applicants for an Oregon driver's license — a step Congress required. Without the new law, Oregonians risked not being able to use their license to board an airplane or enter a federal building.
- One bill provides assistance to victims of natural disasters — a response to severe flooding on the north coast last fall, after the regular 2007 session had adjourned.
- Another enacted measure requires retailers to pull toys from store shelves when they are recalled for safety reasons — a reaction to reports over the holidays of of imported toys contaminated with lead.
Budget measures appropriated additional money for state police troopers, child-welfare workers and senior care, and funded the "Big Look" committee charged with a comprehensive review of state land-use laws.
One issue that came up during the session was put off until 2009. Lawmakers decided they didn't have time to tackle the issue of school districts cutting secret deals with teachers suspected of child abuse after a series of stories in The Oregonian revealed the practice. They appointed a task force to craft legislation for the 2009 session.
That's evidence that the session was perhaps a bit too short to be fully effective. While lawmakers achieved their stated goal of demonstrating discipline and not wasting time, work was left undone.
We think the wise course, however, is to keep a one-month limit, if part of the goal is to win approval of an annual session. If a true crisis rears its head, legislators could always push for an emergency extension. The session in odd-numbered years, when the budget is enacted, should be longer, but also strictly limited, with firmly enforced deadlines throughout the process.
Voters will have an opportunity to pass judgment on this year's test drive, perhaps in 2009. Establishing permanent annual sessions would mean amending the state constitution, which requires a vote of the people.
Annnual sessions were on the ballot in 1990, but failed by 5,000 votes out of about 600,000 cast.
Oregon is one of just six states where the legislature meets only every other year. Serving a population of more than 3.5 million and managing a two-year budget of $15 billion requires more frequent attention.
Lawmakers showed they have what it takes to do their business efficiently. Now they must convince Oregon voters they can do so on a regular basis.