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Capital Chatter: Quick work on big issues

In a session built for speed, not clarity, lawmakers will act on climate bills without an economic analysis.

Oregon lawmakers are acting on a climate bill without knowing its economic impact.

The Legislature's 12 Republican senators recently asked for an economic analysis of SB 1530, the main carbon cap and trade legislation, and SB 1574, which is Gov. Kate Brown's version.

In an email, which I obtained through a public records request, Legislative Revenue Officer Chris Allanach responded that there was neither time during the 2020 Legislature nor resources.

"I would not want to provide you with a substandard product," Allanach wrote to Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass. "In order to respond to your request with a quality product that would meet the Legislature's standards, I'm afraid we would need more resources than are currently available. This would likely require several months to conduct a study as well as financial resources to hire a contractor to contribute to the analysis. We are actively working through the current bills and amendments to understand how the program would function in its proposed form and what the revenue impact might be."

This is one illustration of how the 2020 legislative session is built for speed, not clarity.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee passed SB 1530 with major changes — a 177-page amendment posted Wednesday evening — on party-line-votes.

Another example is the "safe storage" firearms bill, HB 4005. A public hearing before the House Judiciary Committee last week drew passionate testimony on both sides, although few people talked about how the bill actually would work.

Advocates had introduced a major amendment about two-and-a-half hours before the hearing, but they struggled with explaining how the details would work in real life. That is not uncommon. Legislative lawyers craft bills but interest groups often provide the framework.

Judiciary Committee chair Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, added an informational meeting this week so members could ask questions of a legislative lawyer. That was at the request of Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio. That discussion lasted only 25 minutes before Sanchez moved on to other bills.

"Knowing what a bill does is the foundation — the foundation," Sprenger said as Sanchez was ending the discussion. "I don't remember the last time sitting through testimony on a bill and working on a bill that I have had the sick feeling that I have in my gut right now, because all the practical questions about what the law does and how it impacts you … (have) been shortchanged. We just haven't been able to have the robust conversation that we need to have."

Sanchez responded: "The short session is hard. We have limited time. We know that. Let me just say, we will do the best we can to focus on the bills that are really, really important to us and that we're passionate about and we have to move forward."

On a party-line vote, the committee on Wednesday sent the amended bill to the House Rules Committee, where it will reside as the political process plays out. If it passes the Legislature, it likely will be the only firearms bill this year to do so.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee shipped SB 1538 to the Senate Rules Committee — on a party-line vote, without ever holding a public hearing on the measure. The bill probably is dead, although nothing is certain until the Legislature adjourns. SB 1538 would allow governments to prohibit anyone, including holders of concealed handgun licenses, from carrying firearms in such public buildings as schools or the State Capitol.

This is Sanchez's first session as House Judiciary chair. To her credit, she was even-handed in limiting people's testimony last week, telling supporters and opponents alike when their allowed time was up.

Similarly, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, was equally gracious to the dozens of people who were allowed one-and-a-half minutes each to testify Saturday on SB 1530 at the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. More than 130 people asked to testify during the three-hour hearing.

Can you imagine driving to the Capitol from throughout Oregon for the chance to talk for 90 seconds, if at all? (If you're someone who's done that, I would appreciate your sending me an email about your experience.)

My third example is a Senate committee hearing last week on a bill to allow church parsonages on rural land. It was held the same morning as the Timber Unity rally, which drew thousands of people — and loud, horn-blaring trucks — the Capitol.

The rally annoyed Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, who chairs the Senate Housing and Development Committee. Most committees stuck to the regular schedules, but Fagan pushed back her meeting's start by an hour or more, blaming "the chaos happening at the Capitol this morning."

She then limited public testimony on SB 1555 — the only item on the agenda — to three minutes per person, saying, "It's frustrating when people try to shut down the Capitol."

That caused Sen. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, to walk out.

So did the bill's sponsor, Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, saying, "There's no respect in this building."

Later in the 18-minute meeting, so did Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego.

Fagan said the three-minute limit was necessary so Heard and all four of the bill's opponents would have time to testify. But it was unusual to apply that restriction to Heard, the bill's sponsor.

This week, the committee kept the bill alive by sending it to the House Rules Committee without any recommendation as to whether it should pass.

But first, Fagan apologized for referring to the "Timber Unity peaceful, nonviolent protest as chaos."

"I did not intend to offend anybody. I often am blunt and say what I think. Ironically, that is because I grew up in a houseful of boys in Dufur, Oregon," she said. "The rural Oregonian in me is sometimes very, very blunt and so I just want to very sincerely say I did not intend to offend anybody. I was very much just Shemia being Shemia.

"You can take the girl out of Dufur but you can't take Dufur out of the girl. And sometimes I say things without always thinking how they would be received by somebody."

Nerves are raw. People are exhausted. Legislation is flying.

And this is only Week 2 of what could be a five-week legislative session.

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.