Side benefit of pandemic may be increased public participation

We appreciate the local town hall meeting organized by state Rep. Jami Cate and Sen. Fred Girod in Lebanon earlier this month.
To paraphrase, slightly, what Girod said: It’s good for all of us to get together, particularly in these weird, COVID-influenced times when nothing is normal – especially the legislative process. It’s important to communicate, directly, in person, with our legislators.
That is particularly true in the topsy-turvy world created by COVID, with the wild swings of policy, the hampering of effective communication on many levels, the general malaise we’ve seen in society.
We’ve been living with the coronavirus for a year and a half, and looking back, it’s pretty obvious that nothing is really clear. We’ve seen repeated reversals by the federal Centers for Disease Controls, recommending first this, then that. State officials have followed suit. What is clear is that we really don’t know that much about this virus, and when we figure one thing out, something else develops.
What is also clear is that Oregon has been badly damaged by the pandemic: Our government processes, our schools, our psyches, our economy, the equilibrium of our state in general are not what they were in January 2020, when things looked so great.
One thing that has improved, we think, based on gut-level observation, is political awareness, particularly among younger people.
The pandemic has broached some pretty basic questions of political process, which seemed so distant and theoretical in that high school civics class, until we suddenly find ourselves facing choices: Do we want the state to dominate our lives, dictating each move we make – all, of course, for our best interest? Should it take care of all our needs?
Or do we want to maintain some semblance of self-governance, at least have policy dictated on a local enough level that we have some say in the matter?
That first option might seem overstated, far-fetched. But considering the extent to which our governor and bureaucrats have exercised power, all in the name of the public good, it might not be as far out there as we’d like to think.
A lot has happened in the Capitol in recent months, as legislators – a supermajority of Democrats, as Girod and Cate pointed out – ramrodded through a large bunch of bills. Lobbyists, minority legislators and others have complained that in the virtual meeting context that dominated the legislative process this year, they didn’t get the sense that they were being listened to.
One of the bills passed, and signed by Gov. Brown, is Senate Bill 139, a mind-numbingly complicated rewrite of tax laws to impose a 17% tax on some small businesses in Oregon. The good news for those opposed to increased taxation is that it wasn’t a clean party-line vote in either chamber; Democrats in both the House and the Senate joined Republicans in opposing it. But it still passed. And Brown signed it.
Another is Senate Bill 744, also quietly signed by the governor, which suspends essential skills testing – reading, writing and math – for the next three years, which means high school seniors won’t have to demonstrate skills in those areas to graduate.
Supporters say the new law will allow the state to “regroup” and to renew graduation requirements. The Oregonian newspaper reported that a spokesman for the governor said the law would benefit minority students as new standards are implemented. Certainly, accomodating the needs of the disadvantaged is not necessarily adverse, but this has bad law written all over it, especially given where Oregon is already in nationwide education ratings.
There were plenty of other new laws that will impact rural residents, the gun lock requirements for stored firearms, for instance.
There are new laws that impact newspapers, which are already struggling with reduced staffs and revenues: that restriction on the release of arrestee mugshots to the press that we wrote about in a previous issue; the Plastic Pollution and Recycling Modernization Act (SB 582), which will impose recycling costs on many newspapers that already use 100% biodegradable paper, to name a couple.
There are always laws that don’t please all of us, but this long session seemed particularly egregious.
To top that off, Gov. Brown’s “about face” on mask-wearing in, first, the state’s schools, and now the general population, has really ruffled feathers.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported about the schools mandate: In statement after statement, district leaders lamented the loss of “local control” to make decisions around health and safety for their districts.”
The public turnout and concern at this month’s School Board meeting (page 1) was impressive. And it mirrored what occurred a few days earlier up the road in Sweet Home, where some 200 residents crowded around and into the school district headquarters, where the School Board was holding its monthly meeting on Aug. 9.
Fact is, state leaders are aware people are unhappy, as our local legislators stated in their visit here.
But if they want changes, what citizens have to do is start to figure out how what’s happening in Salem matches up to their expectations – and all that civics class theory about how our state and local governments are supposed to work.
The governor has advocated local control, then reversed in response to COVID numbers.
Legislators have added their own spice to the stew.
Observant citizens, and hopefully there will be more and more of them, have to decide whether this is the style and reach of leadership they want. It’s as simple as that.
P.S.: Let’s keep the public discourse civil – at all levels. While we may be inflamed by the return of COVID mask rules at, say, our local market or eatery, we need to remember: They don’t make the rules.