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Shine the light

Oregon editors say

Too much public business gets done in closed-door legislative meetings

The Oregonian

Oregon legislators regularly take the public's business into private meeting rooms in the state Capitol and shut the doors. These meetings, known as caucuses, often include majorities of the members of the Senate or House, and majorities of the key committees that decide whether bills live to become laws or not. Only one of the four caucuses in the Legislature, that of the Senate Democrats, allows reporters to attend its meetings.

The Oregonian, The Associated Press and 15 other Oregon newspapers ' including the Mail Tribune ' have signed a letter requesting that all of the deliberations of the 2003 Legislature be conducted in open sessions.

We're under no illusions that lawmakers will easily give up closed-door caucus meetings, which allow the majority party in particular to control the flow of legislation and make critical decisions without public scrutiny. But as the Legislature takes more and more of its business behind closed doors, it raises serious legal questions.

Imagine the outcry if a majority of the members of an Oregon school board or a city council began regularly meeting in private sessions closed to the press and public to deliberate and make critical decisions. Yet the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Legislature do precisely this all the time.

Caucus meetings determine which bills live and die, which will get hearings and votes, and which will be quietly, even secretly, buried. During five contentious special sessions last year, lawmakers spent far more time in closed caucus meetings than in public. In 1999, House Republicans met for six hours in a closed caucus to reach the critical decision of how much money to give schools.

— All this is overwhelmingly public business, yet it's being done in secret. That's not how public issues are supposed to be resolved in this state.

The Oregon Constitution requires that the deliberations of each house, of committees of each house or joint committees of the whole, shall be open. Lawmakers argue that because they take no formal, binding decisions in caucus, and that all votes on bills occur in open committee or floor sessions, the closed meetings are legal. But every lawmaker knows the truth: Critical public decisions are reached in these private meetings, decisions that are only ratified in the public sessions. We've heard no compelling arguments for the need for these secret meetings.

Lawmakers claim the privacy is necessary for a truly free exchange of ideas and questions. But at least five states now hold all of their caucus meetings in public. Another five states don't have any caucus meetings at all.

Here, legislators continue to meet in secret to deliberate on and even decide the most important public issues of our time, such as school funding or the size of a temporary tax increase. They must open up. This is not just their business. It is the public's.