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Legislators look to set agenda for session

SALEM — With the Legislature set to convene in February for a truncated election-year session, the question comes down to just how ambitious their agenda should be.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, insists that legislators can act on a number of key proposals and still adjourn after 29 days. His optimism is not shared by a key Jackson County Democrat.

Sen. Alan Bates of Ashland, majority party whip, argues the Senate should limit itself to tweaking state budgets and one or possibly two "emergent issues," such as the subprime mortgage mess.

"We need to tell financial institutions that they are not going to ruin peoples' lives, or we're going to do something about it," Bates said.

"We shouldn't have a Republican agenda, a Democratic agenda, a House agenda or a Senate agenda," Bates said, particularly in 2008, an election year.

Adds Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, the majority whip in the House, "It's in everyone's best interest to get our work done in an expeditious manner."

If successful, the February meeting could pave the way for voter approval of annual sessions. The drive began with the 2007 regular Legislature, which met a self-imposed June deadline for adjournment.

The supplemental session next year must get out of town by Feb. 29, unless members by a two-thirds vote agree to extend it.

Over in the House, Republicans say lawmakers can address their key issues and even adjourn a week early. "Right now, I think if we go to the end of the month, this session will be a failure," said Rep. Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, the new minority leader.

Buckley said his caucus feels "very good" about completing work in a timely fashion, including addressing several issues raised by Republican House and Senate members.

Their priorities range from hiring additional state troopers to provide 24/7 coverage on Oregon highways, requiring valid documentation before issuance of a driver's license, creating an audits office under the Legislature to monitor state spending and creating an ambitious water storage system for Eastern Oregon agriculture and water table restoration.

Buckley said he supports legislation to blunt an initiative by political gadfly and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix that comes down hard on property crimes — "something that is affordable and not a sledge hammer," he said.

Estimates to implement and enforce the provisions of Mannix's initiative range up to a half-billion dollars.

Finally, adds Buckley, the trick is to leave enough time to deal with the unpredictable.

An election-year session poses some political risks. At least five Democratic senators are seeking statewide office — four going for secretary of state — while House Speaker Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, is running for the U.S. Senate.

Republicans will be working hard to regain their majority in the House, which they lost in the 2006 election. (In the Senate, the GOP probably has little chance of winning control, but members would like to add a few seats.) That undoubtedly means politics will be in play as the candidates seek a competitive edge for the upcoming primary and general elections.

Bates favors short off-year sessions — about six weeks in length — to deal solely with finances. The major policy decisions would come during the normal regular sessions.

That would do away with the legislative Emergency Board which acts as a mini-Legislature during the interim. And that would be a good thing, said Bates, who sits on the board.

"Every legislator should be involved in the decision-making process when it comes to spending state dollars," he said.

Courtney said the key to a successful supplemental session is preparing prior to convening.

"If we cannot get things done beforehand," he added, "we're going to be in a lot of trouble."

The earliest a ballot proposal for annual sessions would be referred is in 2009, Courtney said.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.