Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Day at the Legislature

The room was crowded: lobbyists, attorneys, legislative staff members, and about a half dozen state representatives and a senator, waiting to testify about their bill. The committee’s clerk helped me sign in and filled me in on how the process worked. My bill was last on the agenda, so I had plenty of time to see how all this worked.

The deputy sheriff I’d driven over with looked sharp in his freshly ironed uniform, but a bit out of place, with his pistol, his taser, and his handcuffs. I could tell he’d rather be out in his pickup, driving around the sand dunes, dealing with ATV riders and crushing crime. But, still, he was up for the adventure, of doing something bizarre: going to Salem with a judge to try to make new law.

I had teased him a bit, wondering if the Sheriff had sent him to escort me over here, so I wouldn’t get into trouble and embarrass the county. We’d driven by the state hospital, and we joked about maybe it was really time for my own commitment hearing.

I was a bit out of place myself, wearing the suit I usually only wear to funerals or big events at the courthouse. But, today I was at the Legislature, and I needed to make a good impression. I might be from the sticks, but now I was in the Big City, and sitting here, under the Capitol dome, wanting to change the law a bit.

The last time I did something like this, I was the district attorney. I’d come to Salem to get the Legislature to change the definition of rape. I’d had a case where a woman had raped a teenaged boy. But the rape law then defined rape according to gender, and I had to charge her with a lesser crime. The committee liked my bill, but it didn’t pass that session, as one senator tabled it, along with some other reforms, simply because he didn’t like the other bills.

It was a good idea, though, and sailed through the next session of the Legislature, after that senator had retired.

The deputy sheriff and I walked around the Capitol, looking at the murals and the paintings of the former Governors. We ran into a friend of mine, who is the lobbyist for the justices of the peace, and he gave me some tips on how to testify and present my case. We didn’t see the Governor. I guess he had more important things to do.

The committee members filed in, joking a bit with each other, and waving to a few of the folks in the audience. The chairman gaveled the room to order, and they heard the first bill. The state senator from our area sat down at the witness desk, joined by the mayor of the city where the police chief had been killed a few months ago. They wanted to name a part of a highway in his memory. The mayor’s words were sad, and he choked up a couple of times, remembering a good man, and a tragedy. The committee somberly voted to send the bill to the House.

The next bill was about airspace for drones in eastern Oregon, and asking the Legislature to urge Congress and the FAA to change some of the rules, so the state might attract the drone industry. Well, we seem to have lots of airspace that goes unused, especially east of Bend, so the bill sounded like a good idea. I learned that drone test flights are best about a mile high, and can go up to about five hundred miles on a tank of gas. And, some folks worry that drones will be used to spy on them. But, none of those folks showed up to talk about the bill today. I kind of wanted to hear what they might have told the Legislature.

The next bill seemed a little weird. Weird in that we didn’t seem to need to make any new laws on the subject.. But, apparently, when freeways are built with federal money, there are some rest areas where you can’t sell food or do any other business.

The lawyer for trucking industry and the owner of a big truck plaza near Eugene testified, saying the bill attacked their ability to make a living, and that it would put a lot of folks out of business.

Then, a blind man shuffled to the witness stand, folding his white cane, as he told the sad story of blind folks barely making a living by servicing the limited number of vending machines at rest areas and how they’d all be starved out if the bill became law, and WalMart and Safeway would take over the rest areas. Oh, what an evil bill!

One member talked about not feeling safe at night at the rest areas, and how he was propositioned one night by a guy at the rest area near Baker City, a cowboy town in eastern Oregon if there ever was one. The other members looked at him, cocking their heads, and he stopped his story in mid sentence.

The deputy sheriff and I wanted him to go on, and tell the rest of the story, as it was the best one of the day.

The new legislator who had introduced the rest area bill tried to make his way to the stand again, wanting to salvage his bill that had been strafed and set afire by all the other witnesses. The chairman just looked at him and shook his head.

Most of the folks in the room were there for a bill that would extend a tax credit to the big boys from Hollywood, who came to Oregon to film movies. There was a lot of discussion about how much money movies brought to Oregon and how much it costs the state to have a tax credit. Yet, the committee danced around that for a while, and punted the ball down the field, sending the bill to yet another committee, with a name something like the Tax Credit Allocation Subcommittee, to figure it all out.

The real entertainment in all of this was when one member moved to send the bill to the other committee, but with no recommendation on what to do with it. Apparently, that was a new animal in the zoo of legislative procedure, and the committee agreed to “rest” and go into a huddle to discuss the odd motion.

In a few minutes, the chairman gaveled the committee back to order, and asked the legislator to amend his motion. He amended it and then the chair asked him to withdraw it. He did that, and then all was well. Apparently, that cleared the procedural deck for another member’s motion to refer the bill to the new committee, with a “do pass” recommendation.

My state representative, who had introduced my bill after I’d written her a letter, had sat down beside me and was enjoying the parliamentary procedural snarl. This is her world, and she hadn’t seen that one come up before.

It was finally our turn. The room was noisy, as all the movie industry folks were shuffling out of the place, ready to call it quits and go have a beer somewhere. I was ready myself, but it was time to do what we had come to Salem to do.

I handed my fifteen copies of my written testimony to the committee clerk, and sat down at the witness table with my state representative and the deputy sheriff. He hadn’t planned on testifying, but had told our representative “sure” when she asked him to say a few words. Now, he was really out of his element. Still, he’s an adventurous kind of guy and was ready for another new experience in the life of a deputy sheriff in our county.

We introduced ourselves, and the state representative handed it over to me. I had been told that I shouldn’t read my testimony (three pages on the need to change “and” to “or” in four different places in statutes that talked about dangerous operation of all terrain vehicles and parental responsibility). It seemed a bit mundane now, after all the discussion about drones, and rest area businesses, and movie making. Well, then, maybe not.

So, I summarized, and gave an example of a trial I’d had, with the deputy sheriff, and how the statute was limited, and we couldn’t make the sand dunes as safe as they should be, and why “and” should change to “or”.

The committee members seemed to be pleased that a real judge had come to talk to them. I guess they usually see the lobbyists for the truckers and the auto club enough that talking with a traffic judge was a pleasant diversion. And, the bill was nice and uncontroversial. The chairman was expressing delight we’d come so far to talk with them.

They all liked our idea, but couldn’t vote on it that day. Apparently, the Legislature has a rule that they need to have a “cooling off period” of a couple of days, after public testimony, and then vote on the bill at a “work session”.

The committee ended its work and everyone poured out of the room. It was Friday afternoon and the week’s worth of committee meetings and legislative work was done. No one minded that thought.

In a week or two, I’ll find out if my bill will move on to the full House and hopefully pass. If it does, then it goes over to the Senate and I get to come back to talk to a committee of senators.

Maybe my bill will become law, and maybe not. But, it has been fun to try and to see how the Legislature works, and what their world is like.

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