Legislature opens 2021 session with a heavy infusion of reality
The new Oregon Legislature was light on the usual ritual and rhetoric during its opening day on Monday, Jan. 11 — though they were present — but heavy on the realities that have reshaped state politics during the past year.
All 60 representatives and 17 new senators took their oaths from Chief Justice Martha Walters. But unlike typical opening days — which have been compared to the first day of school — staff, families and friends were largely absent from the Capitol in Salem because of social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest serving presiding officers in state history, spoke of some of the challenges ahead in the 160-day session. Lawmakers get down to business on Jan. 19 when the presiding officers assign bills to committees, which will meet virtually for the first few months. They have already named committee members and leaders.
"We are legislating in a new way," said Courtney, a Democrat from Salem. "It will be difficult, but we must keep going."
But legislators did not meet in joint session to hear a state of the state address from Gov. Kate Brown, also because of coronavirus restrictions.
Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, also touched on the new realities that have emerged since the Democratic leader abruptly shut down the 2020 regular session on March 5 after Republican walkouts over climate-change legislation that failed to reach a vote.
"The gravity of all these moments and all these events really require us to serve this body and our state with as much gratitude, authenticity, vision and perseverance as we can muster," Kotek said in remarks after she took her oath for a new term as speaker. "Oregonians are depending on us for service and our success this legislative session."
Lawmakers did meet for three special sessions, and the Emergency Board met a record 13 times to handle budget matters between the 2020 session and Monday.
In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted Brown to issue the first in a series of executive orders a few days later, the resulting downturn caused Oregon's statewide unemployment rate to jump from a record-low 3.5% in March to a record-high 14.2% the next month. The rate has since declined to 6% in November — the December number will be released soon — but Oregon has regained only half the jobs lost.
The other realities facing legislators were the racial justice protests prompted by the death of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, and the wildfires that swept through Oregon and caused thousands to lose their homes.
In addition, hundreds of anti-lockdown, pro-Trump protesters forced their way into the Oregon Capitol during the Dec. 21 special session, foreshadowing the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol. Police confined protesters to a vestibule before ejecting them and turning back another attempt later that day.
State Police were present in force Monday, but there appeared to no incidents.
Nearly 1,000 measures await first reading, a step required before they can be assigned to committees. There are 3,000 total requests for measures, according to the House speaker's office, about the amount for an odd-numbered-year session.
"Oregonians are hurting," Courtney said. "We will be there for them in their time of need."
Here are the new members of the Oregon Legislature.
Democrats (8): Wlnsvey Campos of Aloha; Maxine Dexter of Portland, full term; Dacia Grayber of Portland; Zach Hudson of Troutdale; Jason Kropf of Bend; Khanh Pham of Portland; Lisa Reynolds of Portland; Ricki Ruiz of Gresham. Dexter was seated after the death of Rep. Mitch Greenlick on May 15.
Republicans (5): Jami Cate of Scio; Bobby Levy of Cove; Lily Morgan of Grants Pass; Suzanne Weber of Tillamook; Boomer Wright of Reedsport,
Republicans (2): Dick Anderson of Lincoln City; Art Robinson of Cave Junction.
Democrats (4): Chris Gorsek of Troutdale; Kayse Jama of Portland, appointee to seat vacated by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, two years; Kate Lieber of Portland, Deb Patterson of Salem, elected to unexpired term, two years.
New voices emerge
One other reality emerged Monday: The historic presence of a record number of legislators of color. Nine of them sit in the 60-member House and three in the 30-member Senate. None, however, has yet to be a presiding officer or a party leader.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, was nominated by House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby for the position of speaker pro tem, who presides over the House when the speaker is absent. But Bynum declined; she announced last week she was setting aside her challenge to Kotek in exchange for a series of pledges by current leaders for change, including a spot in leadership for a legislator of color.
Bynum, who is Black, said she hopes one day to win the speakership on her own. She will lead the Judiciary Committee, which usually handles the most bills in the chamber.
Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, was chosen to be Senate president pro term. He is the third person of color to hold the position, after Mae Yih of Albany and Margaret Carter of Portland.
"We are in a moment of history when we need to address our racist past in our country and focus on creating an equitable future for everyone," Kotek said. "We must never forget that racism is threaded throughout the state's history and continues to undermine our present. We have done good things, but it is only the beginning and certainly not enough."
Oregon has issued a number of discriminatory measures in its past, starting with the 19th-century displacement of Native American tribes by white settlers.
Until voters removed them in 2002, the 1857 Oregon Constitution made references to Blacks being unwelcome although Oregon was admitted in 1859 as a state that banned slavery. Oregon also barred Chinese from owning property — a law that was changed only after China and the United States became allies in World War II — while Japanese were rounded up and sent to federal concentration camps during WWII.
A 2019 law that took effect Jan. 1 severed the link between Oregon driving privileges and proof of legal presence in the United States. Undocumented immigrants, many of them Hispanic, still must pass standard driving tests and comply with insurance requirements.
Kotek said to that end, a special House committee will look at changes to the Legislature and the lawmaking process to increase public engagement by communities of color and other underrepresented populations.
Open or not?
But there are still differences between the parties.
Democrats hold supermajorities over Republicans in both chambers, 18-12 in the Senate and 37-23 in the House. The Nov. 3 election resulted in no net change in the Senate — Republicans gained an open seat vacated by a Democrat on the coast, but a Republican appointee in Salem lost to a Democrat for an unexpired two-year term — and a net gain of one for Republicans in the House. Republicans won two open seats vacated by Democrats on the coast, but a Republican incumbent in Bend lost to a Democrat.
Legislators easily adopted rules that, for the moment, keep all committee hearings virtual. The Capitol has been closed since March 18, 2020, because of the pandemic.
Republicans, however, protested. Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons specified the constitutional requirement that legislative deliberations be open to the public.
"We are nearly a year into this pandemic," he said in a statement. "We have data and information on how to make public spaces safe. Some restaurants are open, big-box stores are open, and even California — a state whose COVID case numbers are among the grimmest in the county — has acknowledged the importance of allowing the people to safely access their capitol."
Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, acknowledged that even though the Constitution sets the opening date of a session on the second Monday in January in odd-numbered years, it does not specify the start for the 160-day session. He said lawmakers should wait until there is widespread vaccination against the COVID-19 coronavirus.
"Let's meet April 27 — I don't know, pick a date, I don't care, whenever things get better," he said. "Let's meet April 27, whatever date you choose, and let's all go home."
Unlike their counterparts in Congress, state legislators do not have special priority for vaccines.
But the Constitution also empowers each chamber to set its own rules.
Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, said the rules open up committee hearings to people who formerly could not take the time to come to Salem and testify in person. She said the rules also follow protocols laid out by state and federal health authorities to check the spread of the virus.
"It's a small step to help keep all of us safe," she said. "I come together with all of you today in the face of great unrest in our country with the strong belief that we are better when we are all together."
Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, said some legislators have a case for delay given their ages or underlying medical conditions. He said he himself isn't in those categories — he is under 50 — but he has responsibility for his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease and who is living with him, his wife and daughter.
"So I have to take it more seriously than I normally would," he said. "I realize it's an inhibition to face-to-face contact, but I cannot risk (my mother's) life by coming here to do my job until I am vaccinated. That's the way it is."
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