Concerned about growing partisanship in the legislature, Oregon lawmakers created a public commission to turn the mirror on themselves. Senator Avel Gordly, one of four legislators to serve on the commission, talks to PT about her experience, the commission's findings and the importance of relationships between policy-makers.
PT: What can you tell us about the state of the legislative process in Oregon right now?
Gordly: As you know, in 2005 the senate president and speaker of the house appointed the Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature to examine how we might move the legislature into the 21st century. At the time of the appointment, it has been well over 30 years since the last close examination of the legislative process, so it was well overdue to do it again.
Over the next 18 months, a diverse group of citizens and four legislators—including myself—took a look at several areas and came back with recommendations under several headings: fundamental reform, which looked at open primaries, a non-partisan legislature, a redistricting commission, funding for the government standards and practices commission, initiative reform, campaign finance and compensation for legislators. We also looked at the possibility of having a non-partisan state controller.
Under the heading of "recommendations for institutional reform," we looked at annual sessions and session structure, partisanship, staffing, nepotism, alcohol consumption and public access.
We also analyzed and provided recommendations under the heading of legislative process. We looked at committee structure, the bills and amendments process, program evaluation and how budget notes are used in the weighs and means process. Finally, we looked at ways to move our facilities and technology into the 21st century.
PT: How diverse was the group that comprised the commission?
Gordly: It was extremely diverse in terms of political affiliation, geography, background, race and gender. And that diversity led us to challenge our assumptions and not only think outside of the box, but to get rid of the box entirely.
PT: Undertaking such a wide-ranging analysis of the legislature is both ambitious and rare; many legislative bodies aren't that self-reflective for fear of what they might discover. What led to the establishment of the commission after 30 years? Were there points of contention in the legislature that prompted it?
Gordly: In my view there were a couple of things. One was the recognition that partisanship was preventing policy-makers from taking a deep look at issues and preventing consensus from emerging around public policy issues. That was part of it, but also the recognition of the fact that a legislature that meets every other year misses opportunities to make decisions in a timely manner. In fact, the legislature operates as a kind of board of directors, with the legislators responsible for billions and billions of taxpayer dollars. In this sense, it doesn't make sense to meet for such a short span of time where the opportunities to deliberate thoughtfully and deeply are less available.
PT: Have the commission's findings led to any substantive changes in the legislative process that you find beneficial?
Gordly: One of the rules that we've put in place as a direct result of the commission's findings is one that prohibits lobbyists from sending notes into members of the senate during senate sessions. In the past these notes would come in and some members would get up and run out to talk to a lobbyist. The practice was disruptive to the continuity of business on the floor but that practice has been eliminated. This has had a huge effect in my view.
PT: What has the reaction been from your colleagues who weren't on the commission?
Gordly: It's been positive. The more that people are exposed to the recommendations, the more they understand why they're necessary.
PT: Let's back up and look at the manner of legislative business there in Oregon. If politics is ultimately about balancing competing interests or ideas, what would you say is the greatest imbalance in the system as it operates in Salem?
Gordly: I think we have an interesting trend going on in Oregon with the growing number of independent voters. People aren't identifying with either of the established parties, and that says that we need to pay attention to how unaffiliated individuals are invited into the process and given some ownership in a democracy dominated by two parties.
PT: What do you think is the best way to get back to the collegiality, patience and respect that you mentioned?
Gordly: We need to be intentional about creating the time and space to build our relationships with those we work with, regardless of their political perspectives or geographic concerns. One thing that was invaluable to me was an exchange I did with a colleague from eastern Oregon—the rural part of the state. I took a group of people from my community who do economic and community development work, and we met with folks from all over the area. Then some of the people who did similar work out there came to my community and did similar things.
It's through that kind of intentional exchange, getting to know not just one another, but one another's communities, that so many valuable things can happen. The other part comes from our willingness to invest some patience to get to know each other. Everyone has a story and everyone wants to be understood. By taking the time to listen to one another, we'd be able to find that common ground that we can build on. At the end of the day, we're all people.
PT: Senator, Thank you for your time.
Senator Avel Gordly represents Portland and Oregon's 23rd Senate District. She sits on the Legislative Operations and Reform Committee and serves as vice-chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.