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Nonpartisan idea may have merit

Local editorial

Much of the Legislature's gridlock is the result of partisan politics

State Sen. Charlie Ringo, D-Beaverton, thinks he has a solution to the partisan gridlock that has gripped the Legislature in recent sessions: make state senator and state representative nonpartisan offices. He just might be right.

He could be wrong, too. A nonpartisan Legislature might not make sense for Oregon. But we think it's an idea worth exploring. And we're not alone.

Ringo is sponsoring an initiative he hopes to qualify for the November ballot. The bipartisan Oregon Business Association is also exploring the idea. Its president, Lynn Lundquist, a Republican and former speaker of the House, says the group's executive committee and board of directors have discussed the possibility of backing one or more initiatives.

What would a nonpartisan Legislature look like?

For starters, the two-party system that controls everything that happens in Salem would be gone. Under the current system, the party in the majority in each house elects the House speaker and Senate president, who then appoint committee chairs and control the flow of legislation.

Under a nonpartisan system, whoever received the most votes from the members of each chamber would be speaker and Senate president. The same would be true for committee chairmanships.

— In Nebraska, the only state with a nonpartisan Legislature, 33 of the 49 members of the single legislative chamber are Republicans, 13 are Democrats and three are independents. But Republicans controlled only 9 of 14 committees last year, and only six the session before.

In Oregon, the majority party controls all the committees.

In recent years, legislative sessions have become increasingly partisan affairs, with party leaders exerting control over members' votes. That's one reason why last year's session was the longest in state history.

Only at the very end did a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats assemble the compromise tax package that balanced the budget. And they had to buck their party's leadership to do it.

Predictably, Oregon leaders of both parties have dismissed Ringo's initiative as bad for the state.

Democratic Party Chairman Jim Edmunson said that without party involvement, the Legislature would become an insider group where back-room deals would set the policies.

We don't buy that.

A key feature of a partisan Legislature is the party caucuses, which often determine the fate of legislation. Caucus meetings are closed to the press and public, but that's where the real business of the Legislature takes place.

Presumably, in a nonpartisan Legislature, all decisions would be made in committee and on the floor, in public. And members would be free to form whatever coalitions they felt would advance the interest of their constituents.

Political observers in Nebraska say that state's Legislature tends to divide more often along urban and rural lines than by party affiliation.

Nebraska's Legislature was not always nonpartisan. Voters made it that way in 1934 when they voted to amend the state constitution.

Oregonians could do the same. One thing's for sure: The only way it will ever happen is if the voters decree that it shall be so.

Let the debate begin.