The Oregon State Legislature: History, Territorial Composition, and Operation

by Curtis Coleman

Three of the most determinant factors of a political institutions identity include its historical origin, its physical composition, and the way it operates on an ongoing basis. Of all the states that comprise the United States of America, Oregon is an example of one of the finest traditions in American Government. From humble origins as part of a west coast trading colony the state has evolved from an informal provisional legislature, to an official territorial legislature, to the state we know today with a well-defined county system that includes complimentary legislative districts for both the Oregon Senate (30 members) and Oregon House of Representatives. (60 members.) On an operating basis the State of Oregon legislature is a well-coordinated body politic that deals with a broad spectrum of regional, state, national and international issues on the world stage.

The History of the Oregon Legislature

The first attempt to establish government in the Oregon territory that went beyond the trading posts took place in 1841. A meeting was called in part, to decide how the estate of Ewing Young should be disbursed. Although a committee was formed to draft a code of laws the effort ultimately failed because of pressure exerted by the British as well as the U.S. Exploration Expedition which lasted from (1838-1842) a U.S. Navy expedition of discovery undertaken to map and explore the entire Pacific Ocean from top to bottom. 1 It was not until 1843, two years later that Oregon residents met at Champoeg in May and July. A nine member committee was formed which in turn created various sub-committee’s for ways and means, military affairs, private land claims, and to create counties. In addition, operating rules were established.2 In July of 1843 the organic act was rarified. The act was modeled after the Iowa Law code which included a bill of rights. The law also provided a unicameral legislature with nine elected officials. The fact that the body was unicameral, consisting of a single chamber helped maintain simplicity of the fledgling government. Initially “Oregon consisted of only four counties. The original four counties created by the Provisional Government of Oregon were: Twality, Clackamas, Yamhill Champoick. Tuality was changed to Washington in honor of President George Washington.” 3 During the second regular session of the legislature in 1845 there were 12 legislators later increased to consist of at least 13, but no more than 61 members. At that time three more committees were created to oversee claims, elections and Indian Affairs. Additional responsibilities included “powers of impeachment, apportion of legislators, levy of taxes, issue licenses, regulate trade, establish post offices, declare war, organize militia’s, regulate liquor, currency, police, and to create lower courts, and pass laws for the general welfare of the people. Meetings were scheduled for the first Tuesday in December.”4 In the following years 1845 – 1848 the legislature grew from 13 to 20 members with 18 actually serving.

The primary driver of a growing government is population and Oregon was no exception. “The story of Oregon’s resettlement in some respects was an old one, following a script laid out in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest, the Chesapeake, Massachusetts Bay, and New York . . .” 5   “Until 1842 migration to Oregon had been sporadic. That year over one hundred came over the Oregon Trail, and for the first time women and children combined to outnumber men. In 1843 nearly nine hundred people came to Oregon, and two years later some 2500 did. The Willamette valley was starting to fill up.” 6-&-Appendix Charts of Population 1 & 2

On August 14, 1848 an act of the United States Congress created the Oregon territory. Coincident with creation of the territory the Legislature was reconstituted into a bicameral body. The new composition included a nine member council and 18 member House of Representatives. The House was limited to 30 members (half its current size) and Legislative sessions were limited to 60 days.7 The first official session of the new territories Assembly was held at Oregon City in July of 1849. The first controversy of the new territory involved moving the state’s capital to Salem. Two Supreme Court Justices refused to recognize the act and the government experienced turmoil until May 1852 when the act passed and State Government resumed regular operation.

Early sessions of the Oregon government did not always go smoothly. When Governor John P. Gaines called a special session of the legislature in 1852 the governing body convened for only three days in late July and refused to conduct business. This act of defiance centered on the fact that the Governor was considered a contentious and controversial figure and served a tumultuous three year term. In spite his relations with the Oregon Legislature one of the finer achievements of his watch was the chartering of Willamette University in 1852. Originally known as the Oregon Institute, it was founded in 1842 as part of a Methodist Mission. The school is located directly across from the Oregon State capital and is considered the oldest university in the Western United states.8

In August of 1857 Oregon held a Constitutional Convention which proposed a constitution to be voted on and also debated the issues of slavery, free blacks, education, and state boundaries. The document was voted on and passes by a vote of 7195 in favor and 3215 against. In addition, two sets of legislators were elected to oversee the State and the Territory. Finally on February 14, 1859 Oregon became a state. The first state legislature convened in a special session in May of 1859.9 Because many of the members were farmer-legislators session meetings were moved from the summer and fall to the second Monday in January where they have remained since 1885.

From 1860 until 2010 the Oregon Legislature had met on a bi-annual basis. In 2010 the governing body moved to annual sessions. This removed the need for the “Emergency Board” which was established in 1913 to deal with matters of significance regarding the budget or other unforeseen events that materially affect the State. As per a legislative guide titled “The Oregon Legislature” published in 1989”  the Legislative Assembly functions to “enact new laws and revise existing ones relating to the health, education and general welfare of Oregonians, and to make decisions that keep the state in good economic and environmental condition.” ” 10

It was not until Tom McCall’s Governorship (1967-75) that Governors became actively involved in budget proceedings. Further steps to streamline the legislative process include limiting the number of committees to 15 in each chamber (down from 30 to 40). This change took place in 1989. Prior to that, other measures such as the creation of the Legislative Council Committee in 1953 and Legislative Fiscal Office in 1959 helped expedite the administration of Government. The legislative Council Committee is charged with drafting measures for legislators, committees, and State agencies which are legally sound. The Legislative Fiscal Office is responsible to the Joint Ways and Means Committee and is charged with analysis and recommendations regarding fiscal impact of proposed legislation.

The system of Oregon Government has evolved from a simple gathering of like-minded individuals to a system that interacts on the national and international stage. The legislature works on behalf of nearly four million Oregonians and is responsible for a $28+Billion dollar annual budget. (as of 2014) In this capacity they works through a steady stream of input from constituents, lobbyists and other interested parties then apply legal and analytical resources to deliver the best policy on a timely basis. 11 & Appendix Charts 3 – 4

Territorial Composition of Oregon’s Counties & the House and Senate Districts That Serve Them

The State of Oregon consists 36 counties which vary greatly is size and population density. The majority of Oregon’s population is located in the upper Northwest corner of Oregon and the Willamette Valley. This area consists of the smallest counties in terms of geographic footprint but also compose the most densely populated area of the state. In contrast, the Southeastern area of the state contains the largest but least populated counties. The first four counties of Oregon were Yamhill, Washington, Marion, & Clackamas, created in 1843. The youngest counties of Oregon are Hood River 1908, Jefferson 1914, and Deschutes 1916 the last three counties and the only ones created in the twentieth century.12  Map13

Composition of Oregon Senate Districts

The Oregon State Senate is composed of 30 districts. Although the size of these districts vary greatly like the counties, the congressional districts are apportioned in a way that makes them as close to identical as possible in terms of population size. For the Senate this means districts that contain approximately 127,700 citizens in each. As can be seen in the accompanying chart one Senatorial District may contain all or part of as many as seven counties. Examples include Senate Districts #1 ~ #28 ~ #29 ~ #30. Because of population similarity among the districts power is distributed on an equal basis in terms of constituents served.  Map14

Composition of Oregon House Districts

Because there are 60 House Districts in Oregon (or twice as many House districts as Senate districts) the districts are smaller, the populations of each House District contain approximately half as many constituents as a Senate District or 63,850 people per District. The smaller districts still overlap county lines as seen in the House District Chart. In other cases the Oregon House District lines may also overlap Senate Districts such as Wheeler County in relation to House and Senate maps. (upper middle Oregon)  These various overlapping jurisdictions serve to weave a stronger fabric of local government by creating an environment of shared responsibility and awareness.  Maps 15

The most densely populated area of Oregon is the Portland/Metro area and the greater Willamette Valley. This area contains nearly half (29 of 60) of Oregon’s congressional districts.

This is also the region where the fastest growth in Oregon has taken place in the last 30 years. Although the districts of this area are the smallest they are also the most densely populated and are some of the most productive in terms income and household expenditure. Maps 16

Portland/Metro House Districts


Functions & Operation of the Oregon Legislature

As written in the text “Oregon Politics & Government”  “There are three main functions performed by legislatures: representation, lawmaking and oversight.”17


First and foremost legislators are expected to represent the people who have elected them in a way that reflects the constituent values and beliefs. Representation includes making law that is in keeping with the will of the people. Representation also means that legislators helping the people of their districts with problems that arise in the course of navigating an increasingly complex bureaucracy. This function is known as case work or constituency services.


Since all laws are produced by the legislature except those that are introduced through the initiative process lawmakers address the full spectrum of human needs and the various remedies to deal effectively with them. The Oregon State legislature may look at and deliberate over several thousand bills per political season. The bills range from slight adjustments (fine tuning) to a law already in existence, to a new piece of legislation that may contain an entirely different concept or direction. It is not unusual for legislators to examine 50 or 60 issues in one afternoon of hearings and decide whether to advanced, set over for further debate or discovery, drop, or send back to the drawing board for a rewrite by sponsors or lobbyists. Most all lawmaking moves through committee and the lawmakers who sit on various committees become experts who are often sounded out by other lawmakers for guidance on the details and the effect a bill may have. The most important single consideration of lawmakers is the budget. Essentially the State budget establishes the personality of the States response to its people, expressed through financial commitment.


The third function of a legislator is one of oversight. This includes monitoring state administered programs and the accounting of funds allocated to each program. It requires communication on a regular basis and can lead to investigative hearings for further discovery if required.18

“An informal, but highly significant function is to provide a forum for resolution of group conflicts and expressions of public grievances.” “In deciding where and how much money the state will spend on its agencies and programs, the legislature establishes priorities and sets public policy.”


The legislative process is considered conservative by many because there are numerous steps to moving a bill towards passage, any of which can present an insurmountable hurdle to advancement. Various coalitions may form and then dissolve as a bill is continuously amended on its journey through the mill.19   There are 19 Official Procedures in the process of making law.

“Steps on How Ideas Become Law” 20

  • An idea to change, amend, or create a new law is presented by a concerned citizen or group to a Representative.
  • The Representative decides to sponsor the bill and introduce it to the House of Representatives, and requests that the attorneys in the Legislative Counsel’s office draft the bill in the proper legal language.
  • The bill is then presented to the Chief Clerk of the House, who assigns the bill a number and sends it back to the Legislative Counsel’s office to verify it is in proper legal form and style.

The bill is then sent to the State Printing Division, where it is printed and returned to House of Representatives for its first reading.

  • After the bill’s first reading, the Speaker refers it to a committee. The bill is also forwarded to the Legislative Fiscal Officer and Legislative Revenue Officer to determine fiscal or revenue impact.
  • The committee reviews the bill, and holds public hearings and work sessions.
  • In order for the bill to go to the House floor for a final vote, or be reported out of committee, a committee report is signed by the committee chair and delivered back to the Chief Clerk.
  • Any amendments to the bill are printed, and the bill may be reprinted to include the amendments (engrossed bill).
  • The bill, now back in the house of origin (House), has its second reading.
  • The measure then has its third reading, which is its final recitation before the vote.  This is the time the body debates the measure.  To pass, the bill must receive aye votes of a majority of members (31 in the House, 16 in the Senate).
  • If the bill is passed by a majority of the House members, it is sent to the Senate.
  • The bill is read for the first time, and the Senate President assigns it to committee.  The committee reports the bill back to the Senate where the bill is given the second and third readings.
  • If the bill is passed in the Senate without changes, it is sent back to the House for enrolling.
  • If the bill is amended in the Senate by even one word, it must be sent back to the House for concurrence.  If the House does not concur with the amendments, the presiding officers of each body appoint a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions of the bill.
  • After the bill has passed both houses in the identical form, it is signed by three officers: the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, and the Chief Clerk of the House or Secretary of the Senate, depending on where the bill originated.
  • The enrolled bill is then sent to the Governor who has five days to take action.  If the Legislative Assembly is adjourned, the Governor has 30 days to consider it.
  • If the Governor chooses to sign the bill, it will become law on January 1 of the year after the passage of the act or on the prescribed effective date.  In 1999, the Legislative Assembly adopted ORS 171.022, which reads, “Except as otherwise provided in the Act, an Act of the Legislative Assembly takes effect on January 1 of the year after passage of the Act.”  The Governor may allow a bill to become law without his/her signature, or the Governor may decide to veto the bill.  The Governor’s veto may be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses.
  • The signed enrolled bill, or act, is then filed with the Secretary of State, who assigns it an Oregon Laws chapter number.
  • Staff in the Legislative Counsel’s office insert the text of the new laws into the existing Oregon Revised Statutes in the appropriate locations and make any other necessary code changes.20

After an idea is conceived it is written with specified intent and sent to the “Office of Legislative Council”

to be drafted in proper legal form. This is where the language is carefully written and reviewed so as to define the measure with precision that can withstand legal challenge and not create undo liability. Only after a bill is properly drafted can it be introduced.  “Legislative committees play a central role in the legislative process. It is in the committee that hearings are held and legislation tends to get the most scrutiny.”  “Only legislators, legislative committees, and state agencies can introduce legislation. For an agency to introduce legislation, however, it must submit (pre-file) its proposal before the beginning of the session.” 21


In addition to the traditional way of law making there are others. Initiatives and referendums. Defined:  “By enabling citizens to force a public vote on recently enacted legislation, the referendum adds an additional check to the normal legislative process. Legislators are still writing the laws and governments are still signing the laws. The referendum just adds one more veto to the process. The initiative, in contrast, is not an additional check but an alternative lawmaking process. Through the initiative process, citizens can enact laws with little or no involvement of elected officials. The initiative thus poses a qualitatively different challenge to representative democracy than does the referendum.” 22


While interest groups abound they usually fall into a handful of motivational agenda’s. These categories are: Economically Motivated, Professionally Motivated, Public Interest, Ideological, & Government Agencies. Of these, economic motivation ranks at the top. 23

Including trade, business/agriculture & unions. Although the effects of influence are diverse, lobbyists could be viewed as pollinators who skillfully work the machinery of government to keep it moving to get what they want. The influence provided can take the form of raising public awareness, providing

representation to diverse groups, advising congress, introducing legislation, building coalitions, and funding campaigns. 24 “Lobbyists serve as information agents for both legislators and the organizations represented, including businesses, trade associations labor groups, civic organizations, public interest groups, and government entities. Lobbyists either serve as witnesses or locate expert witnesses for hearings. They also develop background material and provide information to lawmakers.” The practice of lobbying government is covered by several statutes which see to timely disclosure under certain circumstances and require registration with the state. Lobbyists are also bound by House and Senate rules.25


            The two best interviews offered where those given in the official video produced by the Oregon State House and Senate. The video is called “Citizens guide to the legislative process” The contributors were well prepared and what they said was this: 26

Senator Peter Courtney President of the Oregon Senate;  (@4 min. 30 sec) “One of the concerns I have is that just about every day when I’m out during a legislative session I hear from someone who says; “can I come to the Capital?” And it always hurts me to hear that because this capital is the peoples building, it’s not our building . . .” “this is your process, this is your building, if you don’t help us with it then it makes our ability to do the job that much more difficult.”

Speaker of the House Tina Kotek; (@ 16 min. 00 sec) “You make the first step by being here. Oregon is a really amazing place, you can walk down the hallways, you can knock on people’s doors, you can get meetings. You really can meet your elected leaders here.”

These are two of the top political leaders in Oregon and what they are asking for is engagement in the process by their fellow Oregonians. This is a positive and hopeful message for all constituents and offers encouragement for people to get involved in a positive way with their government.


In writing this paper I used a variation of the classic 3 ply Industrial/Military presentation. When making the case for action you “tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have told them.” It is an effective style because people assimilate information in different ways. Because our class is up to speed as far as subject matter I took it to the next level which is a tactical presentation regarding the topic. “tell them where it came from, tell them what it looks like, then tell them what it does.” Offering hard physical evidence is the only way to validate a theoretical process. I am also certain that the only people who will read this paper are those looking to engage with their government in a positive way and I hope my writing helps facilitate that process. If more people experienced what a great institution the Oregon legislative system is it would improve their outlook on Oregon and our country.     4201 words – – – – – – Link to live legislative coverage:


1 U.S. Exploration Expedition” Smithsonian Libraries Acc. 6/13/2015

2   “History of the Oregon Legislature” Statesman Journal

Editor’s Note: Archive data from the Statesman Journal can also be found on the official website of the Oregon State Archives. In some cases the Statesman articles provided easier access because of format.

Oregon State Archives: specific location

 And Archives Homepage:

3  Brown, Kate Governor of Oregon “Oregon Bluebook”

4  “History of the Oregon Legislature” Statesman Journal

5  David Peterson del Mar Oregon’s Promise (Oregon State University Press, 2003) Pg. 67

6  David Peterson del Mar Oregon’s Promise (Oregon State University Press, 2003) Pg. 70

7  – “History of the Oregon Legislature” Statesman Journal                                        17

8 U.S. News & World Report “Directory of the Best Colleges in the United States”

9    “History of the Oregon Legislature” Statesman Journal

10  “History of the Oregon Legislature” Statesman Journal


11 Brown, Kate Governor of Oregon “Oregon Bluebook”

12 Governor Kate Brown “Oregon Blue Book 2009 ~ 10 Edition” Pages 254 ~ 273


13 Color Map of Oregon


14  Brown, Kate Governor of Oregon “Oregon Bluebook”


15 B rown, Kate Governor of Oregon “Oregon Bluebook”

16  Brown, Kate Governor of Oregon “Oregon Bluebook”





17 Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel “Oregon Politics & Government” (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 2005), 335 [pg. ~ 118]


18 Role Of Legislature (Official Document as per OLIS)


19  Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel “Oregon Politics & Government” (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 2005), 335 [pg. ~ 125]



20 How Ideas Become Law (Exact Procedure As per OLIS)

21  Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel “Oregon Politics & Government” (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 2005), 335   [pg. ~ 126]

22    Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel “Oregon Politics & Government” (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 2005), 335Clucas [pg. 63] initiative / referendum


23 Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel “Oregon Politics & Government” (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 2005), 335 [pg. ~ 84-87]



24  Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel “Oregon Politics & Government” (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln & London, 2005), 335 [pg. 87] Lobbyists


25Lobbyists: Official Descriptive Document (as per OLIS)



26 State of Oregon Official Video: “Citizens Guide To The Legislative Process”


My primary sources of  information/interview were Senators Riley’s Chief of Staff:  Linda Ray Keeney and Melissa Hendrix his top legislative assistant. They would explain procedure to me and then send me to various hearings to get a feel for how law is made and then answer my questions when I returned. It was a great learning experience. By communicating with them only I was able to learn a lot without going outside the Senators internal group which we all agreed was both the best way to learn fast and also be discreet. It worked well and was basically an ongoing and informative interview. Our only discussions involved legislation that Senator Riley was working on and were always professional.


Appendix Charts

Oregon Population Growth ~ Chart #1

(As per Oregon Blue Book 2009-10 pg. 6)

Census Pop.
1850 12,093
1860 52,465 333.8%
1870 90,923 73.3%
1880 174,768 92.2%
1890 317,704 81.8%
1900 413,536 30.2%
1910 672,765 62.7%
1920 783,389 16.4%
1930 953,786 21.8%
1940 1,089,684 14.2%
1950 1,521,341 39.6%
1960 1,768,687 16.3%
1970 2,091,533 18.3%
1980 2,633,156 25.9%
1990 2,842,321 7.9%
2000 3,421,399 20.4%
2010 3,831,074 12.0%






Population Growth ~ 2 Chart #2

(A per Oregon Blue Book 2009-10 pg. 6) in millions & in 10 yr. increments

^ From 1850~2010 in 10 yr. increments








Chart #3     2013–15 General Fund and Lottery Funds Expenditure

Source: Department of Administrative Services, Chief Financial Office


Chart #4     2013–15 General Fund Revenue Forecast by Source

Source: Department of Administrative Services, Chief Financial Office

This is the most meaningful chart of all, and illustrates the challenges that lie ahead for Oregon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s