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Capital Chatter: Salem sausage making picks up speed

Legislative work moving in distinct contrast to the more thoughtful pace of only a few weeks ago.

This is how the Oregon Legislature operates: Individuals get two minutes to testify for or against a bill. The chair of the legislative committee bangs the gavel, says whether the bill will proceed and, if so, committee members vote to approve the bill.

As April unfolded, that was Your Legislature at Work — a distinct contrast to the more thoughtful pace of only a few weeks ago.

One startled newcomer to the political process remarked privately that it's not exactly the idyllic process lionized in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." (By the way, the 1939 movie starring Jimmy Stewart centered on government corruption.)

The past two weeks certainly do not represent Oregon governance at its finest. Legislative committees were meeting day and evening to process bills before Tuesday's deadline that determined whether the legislation would live on or die.

Of course, nothing is ever fully dead until the Legislature adjourns for the year; even then, dead ideas often find resurrection in the next legislative session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee exemplified the hurried process. On Monday, the committee had more than 40 bills scheduled for action — including several public hearings — during a two-hour meeting.

A few bills did receive extensive discussion. Some were declared dead by chair Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene — usually because there was insufficient time to work through problems in the legislation. The committee passed many bills with dissenters merely registering their objection — instead of debating — because the bill was going to be approved regardless.

When time ran out, the rest of the bills were moved to Tuesday's meeting, when the process was repeated. The committee acted on some bills even though their requisite fiscal analysis had not been completed; that would be done at the next stage. Committee members preferred to pass the bills sans paperwork instead of having another meeting later in the day.

Things were moving so quickly that committee vice chair Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, interrupted the process several times to seek clarification of what proposed amendments would do. "Too much, too fast," she said.

Lobbyists usually know what will happen before it does. That's their job. But the daily migration of bills creates uncertainty for rank-and-file Oregonians who want to follow a bill's progress. Legislation scheduled for one day might be repeatedly delayed for several days.

One such bill was Senate Bill 978, the omnibus gun control measure. On a party-line vote, the committee finally got to the bill on Tuesday and approved it with miniscule discussion of its merits. Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, did say the amended version was an improvement over the original gun bill — which itself was a gut-and-stuff of another bill — but it still was bad legislation. He, Thatcher and Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, voted against the final version, which passed with the votes of Democratic Sens. Shemia Fagan, Portland; Sara Gelser, Corvallis; James Manning Jr., Eugene; and Prozanski.

There was no discussion of the issues raised at a public hearing, such as "safe storage" of firearms.

Pros and cons of gun control: If a legislator comes from a neutral viewpoint, these are not easy decisions. On the one hand, all gun owners should safely store their firearms. Guns should not be lying around where children can get their hands on them. Furthermore, keeping guns locked up will reduce suicides – the leading cause of gun deaths – by family members or others who lack the keys or lock combinations to the secured firearms.

On the other hand, a safe-storage requirement can undercut the purpose of a gun for personal protection. It's not as if an intruder will say, "I'll wait while you unlock your firearm." Seconds can make a difference, especially if new regulations require the ammunition to be stored separately. Biometric gun safes are faster for retrieving firearms than combination-lock safes but even they take a few seconds, or more.

Too much of a good — or bad — thing: This year's deluge of legislation has House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, thinking it may be time to limit the number of bills that lawmakers may introduce." She told reporters on Monday, "We just have too many bills right now in all of our committees."

Legislative lawyers were backlogged writing both original legislation and the many amendments being offered. Amendments often arise from the various sides working out their differences. But in order to keep bills from dying, legislators acknowledged they were passing some measures with the expectation that they would be improved further along.

In Oregon, bills can only be amended in public committee meetings — not on the House or Senate floor.

Though Tuesday's deadline killed hundreds of bills — at least for now — that deadline did not apply to legislation in certain committees. Much of the heavy work remains to be done on PERS, schools, climate change, health care, tobacco taxes and other issues.

Stay tuned. The 2019 Legislature is not yet half done, even though some lawmakers say it is.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.