Oregon’s Measure 71 offers a fairly simple choice: Should the Oregon legislature continue to meet every other year — as it has since 1859? Or should lawmakers convene every year, like nearly every other state in the country?
The debate is a serious one, but when the issue came up on the Senate floor, it sounded more like a history lesson.
My, how times have changed.
Richard Devlin: “Oregon is no longer a horse and buggy state.”
The Oregon Trail has been replaced with an interstate highway.
Rick Metsger: “Oregon’s no longer a state of wagon trains and six-shooters.”
But back in the mid-19th century, it did take a long time to get around.
Jason Atkinson: “We were agrarian. People did ride horses as they came here.”
Others came to Salem by steamboat on the Willamette River. By the 1880’s, the railroad was an option. But for many citizens and lawmakers alike, the number one choice for travel in the early days was to go by stagecoaches.
Larry White of Vernonia is a stagecoach enthusiast who had a replica of the kind of stagecoach that plied the rutted roads of Oregon in the mid-1800’s built about six years ago.
Larry White: “Nobody would let me drive theirs.”
White says stagecoaches traveled the route from Oregon south to California in a journey that roughly parallels today’s Interstate 5. It wasn’t a fast journey — but fast enough to get you from, say, Portland to Salem in a day.
Larry White: “They would go at least 50 miles in a 12 hour period.”
You could cram more than a dozen people onto a stagecoach — nine on the inside and several more on the roof. It wasn’t a pleasant way to travel but it did the job. But for lawmakers who came from further away, the trip could be perilous. It still can be.
Modern-day State Representative Cliff Bentz has an eight-plus hour drive to get from Salem back to home in Ontario, Oregon, right on the border with Idaho.
He first heads over the Santiam Pass, then across the High Desert, and finally—
Cliff Bentz: “About 125 miles through twisty canyon along the Malheur River. Lots of deer, lots of antelope. And you don’t drive very quickly because you don’t want to hit one.”
Bentz lives so far from the capitol he’s literally in the next time zone. And he says people in his district aren’t too keen on the idea of lawmakers spending more time at the capitol.
Cliff Bentz: “For the most part the feeling of people in eastern Oregon is that when the legislature is in session, many of the laws that are passed make their businesses more expensive to operate. More rules, more regulations, more mandates and more things that they have to pay for.”
Bentz voted against sending Measure 71 to voters. So did most of his Republican colleagues in the legislature. But majority Democrats pushed it through.
Democratic Representative Arnie Roblan says meeting every-other-year may have made sense at statehood — but not in the 21st century.
Arnie Roblan: “In today’s world, things move much faster. The economy changes much quicker. Planning for a two-year budget and sticking to it has been more and more difficult over the years.”
Some Republicans say they do agree with Democrats that the budget merits a check-up part way through the spending cycle. But they wanted to limit off-year session to budget matters and other emergency issues.
Now here’s the strange twist: The proposal wouldn’t automatically mean lawmakers would spend more time in Salem.
Recent biennial sessions have lasted as long as eight months. If Measure 71 passes, each annual session would have a time limit — about five months in odd-numbered years and about five weeks in even-numbered years.
That limit could only be exceeded with a two-thirds vote. So the total number of session days could actually be fewer than now.