July 20, 2001 11:00 pm

In the recently completed 2001 session of the Oregon Legislature, Rep. Mark Simmons of Elgin dearly loved being House speaker. The job was given him by his fellow House Republicans.

By all accounts, Simmons tried his best to keep the peace among Republicans and Democrats. A four-day retreat held before the session for legislators on both sides of the aisle was an attempt to build relationships between Republicans and Democrats so they would work together to accomplish some good for Oregonians. Simmons tried to create an atmosphere in the House that for the most part was free of rancor. As he says, he knew legislators would disagree, but he wanted them to do so respectfully.

Simmons, who enjoyed his stint in high-level state leadership, might like to return to the Legislature in a couple of years and resume his post as speaker. One major obstacle stands in his way: Oregons term limits law. The law, approved by voters in 1992, allows representatives to serve a maximum of three, two-year terms, or six years. Senators can serve a maximum of two, four-year terms, or eight years.

Simmons, who will be completing his third term in 2002, will wait and see how a challenge to the term limits law plays out in the courts. A Marion County judge on Friday struck down the law, stating that the ballot measure creating the limits contained too many constitutional changes and should not have been put before the voters. Focus will now turn to the Oregon Supreme Court to see if it upholds Judge Richard Barbers ruling. If the high court throws out the law, then Simmons could feel free to run for the House again next year.

IF THE CURRENT TERM LIMITS law is upheld by the court, Oregon citizens could mount an initiative campaign to put a repeal measure on the ballot in 2002. A measure, allowing a person to serve a maximum of 12 years in either the House or the Senate, might be more attractive to Oregon voters than an outright repeal of the law.

Meanwhile, Simmons is sitting tight, biding his time. He knows that the major flaw of the term limits law relates to experience. Lawmakers are rising to leadership roles while they are still trying to learn the legislative process and history. Lobbyists and state bureaucrats are able to wield more weight than they should when legislators are cutting their teeth. Simmons, however, does not complain too loudly about his own ascendency to the speaker position, in spite of having only two sessions to prove himself.

Simmons points out that novice legislators could gain more experience if annual sessions of the Legislature were held. Helping new legislators gain experience would be a poor reason to move away from the every-other-year assemblies, however.

Our bet is that voters would prefer relaxing the term limits law to allow representatives to serve six terms in the House, and senators to serve three terms in the Senate, or any combination up to 12 years, than seeing Oregon move to annual sessions just so legislators can gain more experience.