Steve Duin: Oregon's Senate Republicans can't deal with progress or innovation
The best bill of the 2014 legislative session -- House Bill 4143 -- transforms the uncollected straw from class-action lawsuits into a gold mine for Legal Aid. And if it disappears down the mine shaft, we will chew once again on the familiar dilemmas of state politics:
* Can Oregon Democrats close the deal on anything that matters?
* Do Oregon Republicans cash those fat checks from Big Oil at Umpqua Bank or Wells Fargo?
This failure will loom much darker than that, however. The inability of the Legislature to memorialize this creative problem-solving will stand as a chilling reminder of how dramatically the world is changing and how insufficient our antiquated political system is to maintain order.
Although this rescue op for Legal Aid was drafted by two House Democrats, Reps. Jennifer Williamson and Tobias Read, it isn't a partisan issue. "There was a time when plenty of Republicans were outspoken proponents of legal services," Portland city Commissioner Nick Fish said. "The whole idea originated under Richard Nixon, for God's sake."
And when Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden served together in the U.S. Senate, they petitioned appropriation leaders with equal passion on the need to provide additional funding for Legal Aid.
That makes sense: The need for legal services -- and the incidence of poverty, domestic violence and landlord-tenant disputes -- does not break down on partisan lines.
But House Bill 4143 broke that way when Senate Republicans and corporate lobbyists realized they finally had use for one another.
The GOP's conservative base is increasingly marginalized. On a national level, Republicans are backing down on the immigration issue and looking increasingly ridiculous in their denial of climate change.
Gay marriage? Arizona may be the Republicans' Armageddon on that front. "What Arizona proved, as much as any other (development) in recent American politics," Politico notes, "is that there's currently no more powerful constituency for gay rights than the Fortune 500 list."
In Oregon, Republicans can't even pull off a Dorchester Conference. The decision by the social-issue misfits to host an alternative luncheon at the Monarch Hotel invites a visit from The Daily Show's Samantha Bee.
For the sake of its 2014 fundraising campaign, then, the Senate Republican caucus is happy, even desperate, to carry water for BP, which lost its legal argument in January about over-charging customers who used debit cards.
By law, BP is allowed to keep the damages that go uncollected. House Bill 4143 would redirect those millions to essential legal services for the poor, which blows the mind of industry lobbyists.
"In the frenzy of a short session, you can kill a bill pretty quickly by saying it's too complicated," said Williamson, who endured a hug Friday from a BP lobbyist who assured her the execution was almost complete.
"The path of least resistance is saying, 'We'll look at it in the interim.' The problem with that is people have been working on this since 1991. There's no question about the process. It's been vetted. It's a very simple bill."
To recap: Oregon would join 48 other states that refuse to return unclaimed damages to the sullen losers in class-action suits. It would, at long last, provide stable funding for legal-aid services.
The only folks who can't keep up are the 14 Senate Republicans and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.
Politics as usual? Yes and no. Senate Republicans want the business lobby to owe them a favor. Johnson enjoys attention. We've passed this way before.
But Adam Davis at DHM Research, who has tracked and polled Northwest politics for more than 30 years, believes this is an especially odious turn.
Davis argues that he's never seen the electorate so negative about "government." Voters increasingly don't differentiate between politics and policy, he said, or the state and federal conflagrations.
Combine that with the disinformation industry and the "increasing ignorance" about how government works, Davis says, and he's "seeing a storm related to the public-opinion climate like I've never seen before.
"It's sheer creepiness out there right now."
Voter anger was once focused almost exclusively to government waste and inefficiency, much of that tied to public-employee compensation, Davis says. That has evolved over the last decade: The electorate is increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress and innovation.
"So, here was an idea that addressed why people are feeling negative about politics," Davis says. "And it went nowhere. That's not only testimony to our system, but it fuels the negativity about not getting anything done."
House Bill 4143 is the best idea to come out of the Legislature in recent memory. It remedies a flaw in class-action law and funds a legal-aid system that can't provide the poorest Oregonians with the help they need.
But the bill is being chewed up in a political system that is designed to be adversarial, not productive, and one that celebrates, year after dreary year, all that is stubborn and self-serving and dull.
-- Steve Duin