My View: Limit lawmaker use of emergency clause

Letter date: 
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Letter publisher: 
Letter author: 
Richard F. LaMountain
Letter body: 

During the presidential primary season, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump attacked their parties’ nominating processes as rigged against rank-and-file citizens.

For sheer voter disenfranchisement, however, those processes have nothing on Oregon legislators’ abuse of the “emergency clause” — an abuse Oregonians soon may get a chance to end.

What is the emergency clause? It is wording in a bill that can make the bill effective immediately upon its approval by the House, Senate and governor. Without such a clause, a bill becomes law no earlier than 90 days from the end of the legislative session in which it was approved.

In Oregon’s system of direct democracy, those 90 days are crucial. If a group of citizens opposes a recently approved bill and wants to rally fellow Oregonians to scuttle it before it becomes law, that group must, within those 90 days, collect a constitutionally stipulated number of registered voters’ signatures (equal to 4 percent of votes cast for governor in the last election). If the group does so, the bill is put before voters for an up-or-down vote — what’s known as a referendum — in the next general election.

When, however, lawmakers approve a bill containing an emergency clause and it takes effect immediately, they foreclose citizens’ right to pursue a referendum. 

Now, in a true emergency, the clause can serve a valid purpose — say, to swiftly allot money to mitigate a natural disaster. Sometimes, however, lawmakers employ the clause to a less noble end: to shield from challenge a bill they know is controversial or unpopular and that, if put to referendum, many Oregonians may vote against and possibly defeat.

Consider, for instance, the 2015 session’s Senate Bill 932, which granted illegal-immigrant college students the right to compete with U.S. citizens for taxpayer-funded Oregon Opportunity Grant scholarships. Last summer, the bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor — and it contained an emergency clause.

Now, the bill’s sponsors certainly knew it would be opposed by many Oregonians. The reason: Barely half a year before, in a 2014 referendum, the state’s voters had defeated SB 833 — a bill approved in 2013 that had sought to grant driving privileges to illegal immigrants — by a near 2-1 margin. That vote had made clear Oregonians’ staunch disapproval of government-sponsored benefits for illegal immigrants. Is it not probable, then, that SB 932’s sponsors attached an emergency clause to the bill to deter what might have been a successful referendum against it?

This is hardly unfounded conjecture. No less an authority than Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, a longtime legislator who knows how politics is played, has stated bluntly that the primary purpose of many bills’ emergency clauses is to “block the constitutionally guaranteed right of the people to refer.” As the old saying goes: If something looks, walks and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

The bottom line: When legislators use the emergency clause to thwart potential referenda, they steal a critical means of government oversight and control from the very citizens they were elected to represent. Oregonians need to restore that clause to its proper, limited role in lawmaking.

An initiative petition is being circulated to do just that. If it reaches the November ballot and is passed by voters, the “No More Fake Emergencies” Act will require most bills containing emergency clauses to receive the votes of two-thirds (rather than the current bare majority) of both the House and Senate to pass — a threshold that would rein in lawmakers’ use of the clause to deter referenda.

Registered voters should go to and print, sign and put a petition into the U.S. mail by June 29. By doing so, they can help restore the voice of the citizen, as manifested in the referendum, to its paramount place in Oregon’s representative democracy.

Richard F. LaMountain served as a chief petitioner of the 2014 referendum via which Oregon voters rejected Senate Bill 833, the 2013 bill that sought to grant “driver cards” to illegal immigrants. He lives in Cedar Mill.