Cool tech aside, legislative process better when it’s in-person

COVID has been difficult for everyone and that’s included our government representatives.
Where you stand on the coronavirus or political spectrum may influence how you read that, so let us explain what we mean.
Specifically, we’re talking about the process of making wise laws and ruling justly, which is what our state legislature, county commissions, city councils, school boards and other governing bodies are supposed to do for us.
Despite the COVID restrictions, our legislators have been busy.
Just before we state residents celebrated the Fourth of July, our state representatives, senators and governor wound up an unprecedented five-month session by passing some major bills dealing with clean energy, wildfire prevention, gun control and police reform.
Among key bills passed, and signed into state law or awaiting the governor’s signature, are the requirement that all firearms be secured with a trigger or cable lock, in a locked container or gun room.
Another suspends the basic reading, writing and arithmetic requirements that schools have employed to award high school diplomas for at least the next three years.
Another bans “love letters” from potential buyers to owners of property for sale, which usually use emotional tugs to try to convince them to allow the sender to buy the property. The new law prohibits owners from deciding which bidders to sell to based on race, national origin, marital or family status, sex, sexual orientation or other protected class.
Still another prohibits discrimination based on “physical characteristics historically associated with race,” including hair styles such as braids, locs and twists. Supporters say that law will help prevent black people from being denied professional, educational or athletic opportunities based on their hair.
Others increase taxes for small businesses that operate as S corporations, reduce the kicker, ban police agencies from accepting surplus military equipment, and make serious changes to the way law enforcement officers can respond to protests and how they face discipline. These are just a few examples.
Not all of these laws may be bad – depending, of course, on one’s perspective.
Some of the police reform laws, for instance, had bi-partisan support, and may make cops’ jobs easy by clarifying what they can and can’t do, and what happens when they’re accused of misconduct.
In passing a record $29.4 billion state budget, based on strong revenue projections, legislators sent money to every corner of the state, increased school spending and made historic investments into housing and mental health.
That included $200 million that went to state agencies to address perceived shortfalls in the state’s wildfire defense system, to develop rules for establishing defensible space around rural properties, and to fund forest restoration. They also require electric companies to draft plans, under the oversight of the state’s Public Utility Commission, to adapt infrastructure and shut-off policies to wildfire conditions.
So why bring this up now? Well, we wonder how all this virtual technology has impacted the process – and the outcomes.
It’s been a weird and very rancorous 18 months since the coronavirus struck Oregon. Despite the GOP walkouts during last year’s short legislative session, the legislative process recently has been, frankly, pretty much a flying wedge formation by the Democratic supermajority in Salem.
No matter what political leanings we might have, we should recognize that’s not necessarily healthy for the rest of us. While the Democrats were ramming through much of their agenda, Republicans have complained throughout that there was a lack of vetting and input by the general public. No matter what political spectrum we adhere to, this should concern us.
The closure of the Capitol to the public, due to the pandemic, resulted in the exclusive use of remote testimony in legislative committees. While it ostensibly gave Oregonians the chance to testify to lawmakers without appearing in Salem, we seriously doubt that a voice on a computer screen will ever have the same impact that an in-person appearance in front of a committee would. Anyone versed in interpersonal communication should acknowledge that.
Our job, as your newspaper, includes a lot of observation and scrutiny of government officials’ behavior and there’s no doubt that virtual meetings lack the accountability that personal presence brings, with nonverbal communication and innuendoes that could never be picked up by a computer camera.
Virtual technology can certainly offer options that are an advantage over not participating at all. Gov. Brown signed House Bill 2560, which requires the Legislature, as well as local
governments, to offer the public the chance to testify remotely going forward, pandemic or not, we suggest that in-person participation always trumps virtual technology when it comes to governing responsibly and regard for those interested in issues at hand.
There are no easy answers to this, and we’ll see how the legislation that’s come through this process pans out.