Lawmakers in Oregon began the 2014 Legislative Session, a 35-day “short” session, with a full plate of more than 300 bills ranging from technical fixes to the creation of new programs. Interestingly, when voters approved annual sessions, the idea was never for them to emulate the long sessions (introducing monumental policy changes and creating new programs). The intention of the short sessions was to provide lawmakers time to approve program changes and re-balance the budget in order to improve government efficiency. Nevertheless, the short session has become a vibrant political playing field as legislators enter the election cycle.
This week began with several high priority and contentious bills being heard in committee. The notoriety of the difficulties enrolling commercial payers into the maligned website of Oregon’s health insurance exchange, Cover Oregon, has drawn the attention of all lawmakers as they are expected to approve of systematic changes to the public corporation that will provide the Oregon Health Authority and the Governor’s office the tools needed to make the corporation operational before the federal enrollment deadline. Due to the public nature of Cover Oregon’s failure, lawmakers have altered the nature of committee hearings to be a podium for their re-election campaigns.
Marijuana and gun-control legislation also created a fever pitch temperature in the Capitol this week. On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to move a bill directing the Department of Justice to study the impacts of marijuana legalization if voters decide to legalize it in the fall. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill that would require criminal background checks for private transfers. As one would imagine, both of these hearings drew a lot of emotional testimony from proponents and opponents, as well as a considerable amount of attention from media outlets.
For all of the surprises that happened in the Capitol this week, there was none more unexpected than the weather on Thursday. For the first time in recent memory, the Capitol was closed during session due to the accumulated snowfall. During a short session, it is critical for the mechanics of the legislature to be at work. Since lawmakers are constitutionally required to sine die (adjourn) by March 9, they cannot add days to the session. Instead, there will be longer and later committee hearings next week to make up for lost time.
Interestingly, the session deadlines do not change with the days lost this week. If a bill has not been scheduled for a work session in the chamber in which it was introduced by the end of today, it is effectively dead. If a bill has not been scheduled for a work session (vote) in the second chamber by Thursday, February 20 and moved by the policy committee by Tuesday, February 25, it will die. Of course, there are always workarounds to these rules. If the Governor, Senate President or Speaker of the House want to resurrect a dead bill, there are maneuvers they can make to do so.