By Hon. Thomas Wilde,
Our legislature was established for one primary purpose, to establish a balanced budget. All else is superfluous, from a constitutional perspective. However, in that exclusive club better known as the legislature, there is a “team” mentality. Many a fine legislator is pulled into the mistaken belief that those on the “team” are friends who will help get legislation passed with only minimal requests by leadership to “play the game” when it becomes necessary. The end result is tremendous leverage by the respective parties’ leadership over their members.
When first running for the Senate I was considered a loose cannon. Someone who might not tow the line, and, perish the thought, might not be a “team” player. There were those who shunned me from the first day. Others who spent their time convincing the press I was a joke and of no importance. But a few appeared to think those strategies might backfire.
One of those people was a sitting Representative. Prior to being sworn in I participated in several partisan events put on by the Democrats. My attendance bolstered the feeling that just maybe I’d come around to joining the “team.” At one meeting the Representative told me of a golden opportunity to make some quick cash. It appeared he had been offered some land that was to be included in the next expansion of the Portland Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). As a new member of the “team” I was informed I too could participate in reaping the financial rewards of buying land for a few thousand dollars per acre, only to be able to turn around and sell it for something closer to $100,000 per acre after inclusion in the UGB. Such is the benefit of being part of the “team” and learning to “play the game.”
Oregon’s land use policies are not all about conservation and preservation. Many have to do with giving certain areas of the state significant political power and leverage. One of the tools used to those means is the urban growth boundary. Land outside the boundary has minimal value when compared the value of land inside the boundary. The greatest financial gain comes from owning the land that is to be included in the expansion of the boundary, and then selling it after inclusion.
That first attempt to welcome me into the legislative fold proved unsuccessful. For me, it did not pass the smell test, and I chose not to participate. Such are the added benefits available to entice participation on and cooperation with the “team.” After all, who better to be aware of the opportunities than those who make the rules. Most are unaware that under Oregon law local government officials can have assets bought from or sold to family members or political contributors without making any kind of disclosure of that relationship to others on the governing council. The legislature does require disclosure.
In addition to various perks available to keep the “team” in line there are what I call the sheepdogs, otherwise known as lobbyists. Their purpose is to keep the flock moving in the right direction, at least according to the lobbyists’ desires. During my first legislative session I was reminded of the impact lobbyists can have on the process. A gentleman representing health care interests walked up to me in the hallway, shortly after my having given a hard time to a bill he very much wanted passed. He stated to me, “Wilde, you’d better learn to “play the game” or you aren’t going to be around here very long.”
During the following interim I was working on an issue involving public employees. Their union hadn’t the slightest interest in helping some of their members and I was going to do whatever I could to help the individuals. The union sent a lobbyist to my office and we discussed the matter. He was firm in his opposition to my taking any action. I informed him I would have to go public with the fact the union was collecting dues while doing little to help its members. The response was, “you do that and we will do everything we can to make sure you don’t get re-elected.” It seemed I’d better learn to “play the game” or my legislative tenure would be a short one.
Shortly into the following legislative session the union put out a hit piece on me stating I was perhaps the most anti-union member of the legislature. Imagine, a senator who in 1997 had been given an 87.5% rating by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) suddenly being anti union in 1998. No, it appeared I somehow had failed to get the message legislators serve the lobbyists in Salem and not members of the general public. So much for constitutional ideals and the belief we somehow were public servants.
That was further reinforced when the chairman of the Senate Revenue committee chose me as his vice-chairman. The Republican leadership, joined by the Democratic leadership, refused to seat me in the position, due to my being a true fiscal conservative. It was not until the chairman threatened to step down if his choice was refused that those in charge acquiesced.
Leadership did have the last laugh, however. The chairman was ordered not to move any tax cut measures out of committee. This from a Republican leadership team. I, however, had no such orders. Our committee eventually passed out approximately $800 million in tax cuts that passed the Senate floor and moved to the House. Based on an agreement of the Senate and House Republican leaderships, none of those bills coming from the Senate was to move out of committee in the House. And none did. Every one of our bills died a quiet death in the House. The complaint made to me concerning our uprising. You guessed it. I did not “play the game.”
Promises had been made to certain lobbyists concerning legislative funding for various items, and any reductions in revenue meant leadership and the governor would be going back on those commitments. These were the sweetheart deals I am talking about, not school funding or programs for seniors. Never mind the fact that a majority of legislators had no say whatsoever in making those commitments. If the legislator wanted to be part of the “team” all that was required was to put on the bobblehead and approve everything leadership desired. By no means ask any hard or insightful questions. Exhibiting any level of intellect is dangerous in our legislature.
By now you have the idea. Many wonder how it is they find decent, honest, caring people to represent them, only to get the same nonsense back from the legislature year after year. The answer lies in being part of the “team” and learning to “play the game.” There are few who can be effective going it alone when faced with 89 other legislators and a governor. Playing the spoiler is not the role best suited for a majority of those we send to represent us. We choose warm and friendly folks who would rather have a nice chat over coffee than make the tough choices.
Above all else, we fail to apply the one true litmus test for our elected officials. Would we give this person our wallet, purse, checkbook, and credit cards? Because that is exactly what we are doing when we elect these people. How is it when selecting our legislators we fail to take into account the one subject, and only subject, they will constitutionally be required to address? That is one for scholars to ponder far into the future.
Until then, as Oregonians, we are left to lead our legislators by example. Perhaps if we vote no on tax increases they will begin to see that there actually is more than one way to vote. Perhaps they will have renewed confidence in exploring the possibilities of using words other than “yes” and “aye”. Then again, I have been accused of being a dreamer. Of believing that some day, maybe in my lifetime, the term fiscal-responsibility will not be looked upon by elected officials with disdain. But what would you expect from someone who failed as a “team” player and never really learned to “play the game.”
email Thomas Wilde at firstname.lastname@example.org