While discussions over the state budget and tax reform get most of the attention in the Oregon Legislature these days, lawmakers are quietly passing bills that are less weighty but make important changes in how government operates and conducts elections.
Measures recently adopted by both houses of the Legislature and sent to the governor include one establishing firm deadlines for agencies to respond to public records requests, one requiring public disclosure of so-called "dark money" spent on election-related advertising, and one allowing 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote when they turn 18.
Senate Bill 481 for the first time sets a firm deadline for government agencies to respond to public records requests. The law previously said agencies must respond "as soon as practicable and without unreasonable delay."
Now agencies will have five days to acknowledge receiving a request, and 10 days to produce the records after acknowledging receipt. Agencies can extend the deadline under certain circumstances, but the deadline language is an improvement.
The bill also requires the state Justice Department to compile and maintain a list of the more than 550 public records exemptions scattered throughout state statutes. That, too, is a positive step, but we would rather see lawmakers start whittling away at that list — or at least enact HB 2101, which would require them to regularly review and reauthorize the exemptions or see them sunset.
House Bill 2505 would change state law that now allows groups to publish information regarding candidates without disclosing their spending, as long as they don't specifically advocate support or opposition by using words such as "elect," "vote for" or "vote against." Under the new rules, those communications would be considered campaign materials, subject to financial reporting, if disseminated within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election.
Shining a light on the "dark money" expenditures by independent groups will let voters evaluate the advertising because they will know who paid for it and how much.
Senate Bill 802 expands Oregon's early voter registration to 16-year-olds.
The law already lets 17-year-olds register, although they can't vote until they turn 18. The idea is to get young people onto the voting rolls early, so they'll start receiving a ballot in the mail as soon as they are old enough. The hope is, that will prompt them to engage in the political process and get in the habit of voting regularly.
Oregon's new Motor Voter system automatically registers eligible voters who have contact with the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division. Approximately 20,000 16-year-olds get driver's licenses every year, but their next contact with the DMV likely won't happen for eight years, when those licenses are up for renewal. This way, they will be automatically added at 16, and can start voting at 18.
Of course, registering people doesn't guarantee they will vote. The Motor Voter system allows people to opt out if they wish. But chances are, many will stay registered. And the more who participate in self-government, the better.