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Government and Politics

Ethics Commission Shouldn't Opine On Oregon Special Session, Director Says

Oregon Governor's Office -
Republicans have accused Oregon Gov. Kate Brown of playing politics for calling a special legislative session in an election year. State ethics officials are unlikely to chime in.

Republicans angered by this week’s special Oregon legislative session have accused Gov. Kate Brown of playing politics in an election year. State ethics officials probably won’t wade into whether that’s true.

Ron Bersin, executive director of the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, says he’ll recommend the nine-member commission not issue an opinion on whether Brown called lawmakers into an emergency session on May 21 to bolster her resume before November’s election. Bersin revealed that in response to a request from Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas.

“In order to answer your request, the Commission would be required to opine on actual events that had already occurred at the time your request was received, which is prohibited by administrative rule,” Bersin wrote in a May 22 letter to Boquist. “For the reason cited, I will be recommending that the Commission deny your request to issue an opinion.”

Brown called the special session to pass a relatively small tax break—an $11 million tweak that’s expected to affect 6,000 small businesses. Weeks before the session, the governor had signed a bill blocking a far larger tax cut to state businesses.

That angered Republicans. Boquist disclosed on May 21 that he was seeking a ruling into how the session squared with state law.

“Needing a tax cut on small businesses to raise polling numbers for reelection is not an ‘extraordinary occasion,’” Boquist wrote in his request, quoting the constitutional language that allows governors to call special sessions. “Using public staff for the aforementioned purpose would, and does, raise serious questions on the adequacy of our ethics and elections laws.”

Boquist was clear: He wasn’t filing a complaint against Brown. Oregon’s elections and ethics laws, he said, include a “loophole large enough to drive a freight train through” that would preclude consequences.

Instead, he wanted an opinion clarifying certain points — such as whether it amounted to a conflict of interest for Brown to call a special session that might help her re-election bid. The governor has said the session had nothing to do with the election.

“The advisory opinion will be used for further action, though undetermined, but most likely to present legislation closing loopholes that appear to exist …” Boquist wrote.

The letter is dated May 18, but Bersin received it on Monday, after the special session had already convened. The one-day session resulted in legislators easily passing Brown’s tax cut.

The ethics commission next meets in late June, when it will hear Bersin’s recommendation that it not issue the opinion Boquist has asked for.