By editorial board • 

Session lacks a set agenda, and that's mostly a good thing

Psst. Pass it along. The 81st regular session of the Oregon Legislature opened Tuesday.

A session may not have commenced with less fanfare since 1848, when Oregon Country’s provisional, pre-statehood legislative assembly convened with only nine members, the other 14 having set out to seek fame and fortune in the California gold fields. These 48ers had a head start on the 49ers.

In past years, we have complained about the Legislature’s Democratic Party leadership methodically moving overly regimented and choreographed sessions toward preordained conclusions — conclusions often involving near party-line passage of sweeping new initiatives. But not this year.

To the extent there IS a 2021 legislative agenda, it’s almost entirely reactive rather than proactive. The main aims appear to be finding some way to respond to a deadly pandemic, the ensuing vaccine rollout debacle, a devastating wildfire season, a crisis of confidence in our criminal justice system and creation of a legally acceptable sixth congressional district. 

In most respects, the lowering of the legislative temperature this year represents a welcome change. We regret the reduced public involvement dictated by the raging pandemic, and the fortress-like setting dictated by malignant domestic terrorism, but not much else.

On the national level, we are shifting to a president who doesn’t demand the world’s attention 24-7 via outlandish statements, stunts and tweets. On the state level, we could do with a lot less self-important grandstanding as well, harking back to a time when government ground along out of sight and mind most of the time.

To the extent there is any obvious legislative path this year, it was charted largely by the three special sessions of 2020, which focused on helping Oregonians cope with disease and disaster.

Proprietors need help. Workers need help. Homeowners need help. Fire and virus victims need help. In almost every corner of the state, almost everyone needs help.

But funds are crimped from the crises, and federal aid remains uneven and uncertain, despite the prospect of increased attention from the incoming administration. And return to a semblance of normalcy depends on universal distribution of vaccine, which has gotten off to a discouraging start on both the state and federal levels — even the county level in some respects.

House Speaker Tina Kotek was commendably candid when she said, “This session is about responding to crisis and helping people.” She went on to say, “My focus will be on an equitable recovery.”

We’ve heard no talk from majority Democrats about major new initiatives to boost education spending or combat global warming. And that is welcome news to minority Republicans, who resorted to controversial walkouts in their fervent opposition to a Democratic cap and trade initiative.

To be sure, tensions between the parties will continue regarding how to best address the great issues of our time. For example, Democrats tend to argue we need to overcome the public health crisis to rejuvenate the economy, and Republicans that our economic underpinnings are too shaky to stand much more delay.

But agreeing on an agenda is an encouraging starting point, which legislators seem to have accomplished.

We also find more favor in working through legislative challenges collaboratively, on the fly, than having the dominant party impose a pre-established agenda through sheer force of numbers as the weeks and months march by.


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