Oregon lawmakers are asking voters to send them to Salem every year, rather than every other year as they have done since statehood. We have some reservations about the concept, but Ballot Measure 71 contains strict safeguards against marathon sessions, and we think it will improve the Legislature's performance.
Oregon is one of just five states that still meet once every two years. In the early 1960s, 31 states held biennial regular sessions.
Today, lawmakers are responsible for a two-year budget of roughly $12 billion dollars. Enacting that budget takes a great deal of time in each biennial session, leaving less time for other issues.
Meeting every year would allow the Legislature to fine-tune the budget in the even-year session and spend time on other issues that crop up between sessions.
Oregon's tax structure is volatile because it relies primarily on the personal income tax, which can fluctuate wildly. Revenue projections frequently throw the budget out of balance in off years.
This leaves a great deal of power in the hands of the Legislative Emergency Board, a small group of lawmakers who can allocate reserve funds to cover shortfalls when the Legislature is not in session.
Another consequence of biennial sessions is that government agencies continue to operate while lawmakers are not around, making it more difficult for the legislative branch to keep tabs on the executive branch.
One of the frequent arguments raised against annual sessions is Oregon's tradition of "citizen legislators" — people with private careers who also serve in office. Annual sessions would lead to a professional Legislature, the argument goes, further removed from the lives of ordinary Oregonians.
That argument ignores the fact that the "citizen legislator" is largely a myth in this day and age.
The National Conference of State Legislatures groups the states into three main categories based on the time demands they place on their lawmakers, how much they pay them and the size of their staffs. At one end — the NCSL calls them "red" legislatures — are the big states with full-time professional staffs. At the other end are "blue" states, sparsely populated and rural, in which lawmakers spend an average of 54 percent of a full-time job on legislative work.
Oregon is grouped in the middle, the "white" states, in which legislators work an average of 70 percent of full time.
The reality is, being a legislator already is demanding enough that many working Oregonians cannot realistically do that job and their other career at the same time.
Ballot Measure 71 would amend the Constitution to require annual sessions. It would also limit the length of those sessions to 160 days in odd-numbered years — when the budget is adopted — and 35 days in even-numbered years.
The part of Measure 71 we especially like would require a two-thirds vote of both houses to exceed those limits by five days. To extend another five days would require another vote.
That would prevent the very real possibility that legislators would simply ignore the time limits whenever they felt like it. In Washington state, which moved to annual sessions in 1981, lawmakers routinely ignored the time limits until voter anger finally forced them to adopt strict deadlines and stick to them.
Given the size and scope of state government in the 21st century, it's time to give the Legislature a 21st-century structure to match. We recommend a yes vote on Measure 71.