Monday, April 02, 2007

Loitering and Pestering in Salem: A Day at the Capitol, Part Two

[See Part One of this series here...]

After getting bumped from testifying on the fusion voting bill, I went off to fulfill a coffee date. Unforuntately my coffeemate(tm) wasn't around, so I went to feed the parking meter and watch the House session until a lunch date in Rep Kevin Cameron's basement cafe'. Isn't that kind of odd, actually--that one Member is making a profit off both the rest of his colleagues and the visiting public? I mean, it's not criminal or unethical per se, it just seems weird to me. Did they just luck into the gig?

In the House there was time enough before lunch for two relatively substantive debates alongside a series of bills passed without discussion, and they were both on individual public safety efforts. The first was HB 2062 {pdf}, to require helmets of ATV riders. Rep. Carolyn Tomei carried it, and spoke relatively sincerely about the need for it, but it failed with only 22 votes. Rep. Roblan had it reconsidered and referred back to Transportation for reworking, so it got a second life after I left.

In a second rather nanny-state oriented bill, the House also wanted to require climbers on Oregon mountains to carry GPS locators so as to aid rescue and not leave rescuers searching blindly in dangerous weather. As written in HB 2509 {pdf}, it's not necessarily a bad idea, and Rep. John Lim made a reasonable case for it, but I happened to watch the committee hearing for this one, and it struck me as odd that the very people it was designed to protect and aid--climbers and rescuers--didn't want it.

They worried it gave a false sense of security, increased costs while doing nothing to increase safety for many types of mountain accidents, and simply diminished the thrill of adventure. I'm not all that sympathetic to the last reason, but the rescue people were pretty adamant that they are not offended by needing to rescue ill-prepared climbers, and didn't endorse making people have them. I found out that the amendments limiting the requirement to 10,000 feet and above may have brought some of the rescuers back into the fold, which may explain why the bill passed.

One thing I will say for the entire legislature and their staff--they are not living large on high grade furniture and perks of office. The chairs Members sit in on the floor look exactly, and I mean exactly, like the same green-issue swivel armchairs prevalent in government office buildings in the 70s, like the ones my dad inhabited. The House chamber carpet has a rather cool tree pattern on it, but you can tell it is faded and worn. The building is well kept if a little outdated, but space is at a premium and staff members of the House double up outside of a Member's office, forming a dual anteroom by sharing 3 walls of a cubicle. I can't imagine what it's like when two members who share cube space end up disagreeing on some bill, and then have to go stew about it side by side. Yikes.

The retro furnishings are thrifty, because I guess most of the stuff still functions properly, but it's very, very dated looking and not really all that professional. It's a small business and political world, and it strikes me that for some guests such as high foreign dignitaries you'd never even want them to face the indignity of sitting on a puke green sofa in a cube farm outside a tiny office. The Speaker and the Senate President get slightly better digs--the chief of staff actually has an office with a door--but nobody's lighting matches off the African oak paneling in order to fire up their Cubans and kick their feet up onto the mahogany desk. Perhaps they put the high-influence VIPs into the special Governor's office, which he rarely has occasion to use--but while more resplendent in typical office comforts, it still looks like the Capitol clocks stopped at 1975.

After lunch it was time to wander the hall along Cubicle Row and follow up on some odds and ends. I started over on the Senate side, hoping to find someone from Senator Prozanski's office to talk about the closed-door workgroup going on for Measure 37 reform. My first step was to introduce myself to Senator Devlin as he walked down the hall, and ask about M37. That's Devlin there, at right. For the record, Senator Prozanski is also pictured--the younger, slimmer, more fully bearded one. Don't ask me why I had them confused; I must have watched 5-6 hours of hearing testimony, and all of it was led by Prozanski. Devlin is my own Senator, which I suppose is why I pulled the trigger so quickly. I hang my brain in shame. Devlin was confused, but polite in directing me to Floyd's realm

Once I found the correct office and got to talking with staff, although they were very courteous and answered the questions as best they were authorized, I got a whole lot of nothing. The staffer seemed more interested in correcting my use of the phrase "back room" to mean "work group," but frankly I don't see a whole lot of difference. I don't place an enormous value judgement on it, but if it's not happening in the hearing room, it's happening out of the eye of the public, and that to me is a "back room" discussion.

I wandered off for a few minutes to talk to someone else, and as I was walking back past I saw Rep. Macpherson, hovering about Prozanski's door. I began moving up to him to ask what he had to say about the workgroup meeting, but before I could engage him he headed inside and shut the door. I now suspect that they were in the final stages of a tentative deal, one that at least one campaign leaked out to the McMinnville News-Register later that same day. I wuz robbed!

The person I went to see between stops at Prozanski's office was Ben Westlund; I wanted to find out what had happened to the distillery tasting room bill, to allow on-site tasting rooms of Oregon distilled products just as for beer and wine. Senate Bill 451 {pdf} cruised through committee and onto the floor a couple of weeks ago, where it passed with 25 votes. It now waits over on the House side. As I was getting this information, I got to talking with Stacey Dycus, who showed me Ben's office--most notably the portraits of his prized semen-spurting bulls, grazing contentedly by the house that ejaculate built. I thought I was making the oldest joke in the book by calling them "cash cows," but either they're just trained to be polite, or they'd never heard it. Dycus and I spent a good amount of time discussing Westlund's healthcare reform plan for the state, and I have to say it's a pretty good one.

It would have been a wasted trip if I didn't head over to try my hand again at getting the House Minority Leader's office to respond to me in any fashion. Their office is not on a separate floor floor like the Majority offices, but is instead in with the rabble of the Members. As long as I was there, I figured, it was worth asking again how the "investigation" was going into just how Freedomworks managed to get their hands on photos that only the House Minority Office could have given to them.

The very nice lady at reception said, "Oh, that would be Nick Smith who knows most about that," and went back to find him. I don't know that she found him or not, but nonetheless I was offered little choice but to leave a message...again. The Speaker's Office had no knowledge whether Scott's office had responded yet either, by the way. Maybe Nick Smith doesn't return their calls and messages either.

My last stop was to Rep. Shields office, just to drop a note thanking him again for the Iraq withdrawal bill, a somewhat thankless task with little tangible payoff for him, but which was the right thing to do, and why I was there thanking him for doing it. (I guess that meant it wasn't thankless after all, which was what I was hoping for in the first place I suppose).

Most of the state's residents live within about a 2-hour drive of the Capitol, and if the first several weeks of the new session haven't convinced you that elections matter and citizens can be heard, let me reiterate the point. If you have an issue you want your legislator to address, make an appointment and then go down and visit. Watch some of a House or Senate session--especially if you bring your kids. They'll be bored out of their skulls after 10 minutes of course, but swift egress and ingress to the galleries are not a problem. And if there's a bill you either really like or really hate, stand up for your views and go testify. You don't need to be Paul Robeson; just be clear about what you have to say and bask in your little contribution to democracy.