Analysis: Legislature’s ‘half-session’ reflects political divide

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature has set all manner of records in recent times — the longest-ever regular session last year, a record five special sessions in 2002.

Now for a new twist: lawmakers will hold half of a special session in the coming week.

With the House planning to convene at 9 a.m. Tuesday and the Senate staying home, the stage is set for the state’s first-ever “uni-session.”

While the mechanics of the half-session might seem mysterious, the politics behind it are not.

Republicans want to send a tight new state spending limit measure to the November ballot — and put Democrats on record on the issue as the fall legislative election races approach.

A House panel has approved the spending cap, and Republicans insist lawmakers must meet under a resolution they passed last year calling for a special session on tax reform.

Many Democrats dislike the spending limit, though, and furthermore they say it doesn’t meet the definition of tax reform.

So while House Speaker Karen Minnis has called the Republican-run House into session, the Senate is having no part of it.

The Senate has no majority party with its 15-15 partisan tie, and all the Democrats withdrew their earlier support for holding a session and don’t intend to show up.

That means Tuesday’s House session can’t produce anything official because all laws and ballot measure referrals need approval of both chambers of the Legislature.

Veteran Salem observers can’t recall one chamber ever moving to convene a special session by itself, nor does a national expert know of such a thing.

“I’ve never heard of it happening,” said Brenda Erickson, an analyst with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Political observers say the jockeying over the special session clearly stems from election-year politics as both parties wrestle for legislative control.

“It’s a classic showdown,” Portland political analyst Jim Moore said, “with Republicans hoping the spending limit will send a strong message they are serious about cutting government waste and lowering taxes.”

The resolution passed by the 2003 Legislature created a joint committee to propose revisions to the tax system. The panel deadlocked, and Minnis named a GOP-run House committee to fashion the spending lid.

For Democrats, the reason to conduct a special session was to take up a proposals that could produce an overhaul of Oregon’s tax system to provide more stable funding for schools and other programs.

But as the interim tax committee continued to meet and hold public hearings around the state, it became evident that there was no consensus among lawmakers — or the public — on how to rewrite Oregon’s tax code.

In the wake of the May 18 primary election, the GOP has good reason to see taxes and spending as potent election issues.

Three-term Rep. Vic Backlund of Keizer — one of the moderate Republicans who backed the Legislature’s $800 million tax increase last year — was defeated in the GOP primary by a political newcomer who had help from Citizens for a Sound Economy, the anti-tax group.

In fact, Russ Walker, Oregon director of the group, boasts that all nine candidates that had help from his organization won in the primary.

Walker says the organization will put a spending limit on the ballot in 2006 by initiative petition if legislators don’t act to send one to the voters this year.

Additionally, Walker’s group and the Republicans no doubt will remind voters this fall that Democrats refused to deal with the spending limit issue in a June special session.

“This is happening because Republican leaders feel they can force the anti-tax issue to the top of voters’ minds” in November, Moore, the political observer, said of the coming week’s half-session.