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New House speaker cites his background: 'That is why the work we do here in the chamber matters.'

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Re. Dan Rayfield, on his first day as speaker of the House, talked about his own background. The Legislature kicked off a 35-day session on Tuesday, Feb. 1.The Oregon Legislature opened its short 2022 session Tuesday, Feb. 1, with majority Democrats laying out long to-do lists, minority Republicans calling for restraint — and a new House speaker citing his life as an example of why legislators' work matters.

The 35-day session also began with a record 15 members of color — 11 in the House and four in the Senate — up from 12 just one year ago, because of appointees. All are Democrats, who overall hold a 37-23 majority over Republicans in the House and 18-12 in the Senate.

New House Speaker Dan Rayfield of Corvallis referred to Oregon's diversifying population as he officially succeeded Tina Kotek of Portland as speaker. Together with the Senate president, the speaker appoints members and leaders of committees — where the Legislature does most of its work — and assigns bills to committees.

Rayfield referred to his background. His parents divorced when he was just 1 year old, and they held totally different world views — his father was a Republican, a commercial insurance executive and a colonel in the Air Force Reserves; his mother was a progressive and a feminist who worked to feed homeless people and protested nuclear test sites in Nevada. He struggled in high school and college, he drank and experimented with drugs, and he was arrested four times on charges of drunken driving, reckless endangerment and criminal mischief. He even got fired from a job at Disney World as a Jungle World cruise skipper.

"I recognize that during the most challenging moments of my childhood, I would have been treated differently by the criminal justice system if my skin color was different," he said. "It's part of the reason why I believe we must continue to center equity in our work.

"That is why I wanted this job and that's why many of us are here: To make a difference in people's lives and create opportunities for Oregonians to build a better future.

"That is why the work we do here in this chamber matters."

Rayfield, 42, is the first non-metro House speaker in two decades, aside from when the House was split 30-30 a decade ago and the co-speakers were Republican Bruce Hanna of Roseburg and Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay. He succeeds Kotek, who resigned Jan. 22 after a record nine years as speaker to focus on her bid in the May 17 primary for the Democratic nomination for governor.

Rayfield was elected in 2014 in District 16, which covers Corvallis and Philomath. He became House co-leader of the Legislature's joint budget committee in 2019. He earned a bachelor's degree in 2003 from Western Oregon University and his law degree in 2006 from Willamette University. He said in his remarks he is still paying off student loan debt.

Rep. Janelle Bynum of Clackamas, whom Rayfield beat on Jan. 16 to become the Democratic nominee for speaker, still got four votes. It was the first time that a Black candidate got votes for being the presiding officer, although 32 Democrats voted for Rayfield. Bynum also tried a bid against Kotek in 2020.

Democratic to-do lists

Rayfield touched on and Democratic leaders laid out lists of priorities for the short session:

• Workforce training: Gov. Kate Brown has proposed a $200 million plan, known as Future Ready Oregon, to prepare more people for emerging jobs in health care, construction and manufacturing.

New House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said lawmakers will take other steps to aid small businesses. "That means investing in skills training for workers, reducing barriers for people starting and expanding their small businesses, and making sure the playing field is level between those small businesses and large corporations," she said.

• Child care: Increase the number of children who receive care, at a more affordable cost, and the workers who give it.

• Education: Action to ease the shortages of teachers and substitutes while schools struggle to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic.

• Public safety: Unfinished business includes a stronger focus by police on violent crimes and less on minor infractions such as broken taillights, which drivers from racial and ethnic minorities are often stopped disproportionately.

• Health care: More money to expand and diversify the workforce, particularly in behavioral health. (The latter has been the focus of a legislative group since the end of the 2021 session.)

• Climate change and natural resources: The 2021 session approved goals for carbon-free power and wildfire reduction, but there is legislation to ratify agreements reached on timber taxes and the fate of the Elliott State Forest on the south coast. There's also a bill to allow communities to proceed with higher energy-efficiency standards for buildings.

Depending on the estimate, lawmakers have between $1.5 billon and $2 billion more to spend than originally projected in the current two-year budget. But some of that has to go automatically into a state reserve fund, and Brown and lawmakers already have agreed to carry over $500 million in federal funds to the 2023-25 budget cycle.

Short timelines

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 to allow for time-limited annual sessions of the Legislature, instead of an unlimited session every other year. Lawmakers dropped a proposed restriction in the ballot measure to limit the even-numbered-year session to budget adjustments and emergencies. (The limits themselves, 160 days and 35 days, were the result of a compromise between the House and Senate.)

But Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend said lawmakers should hold themselves to those standards in the 35-day session. Knopp did leave room for some bipartisan agreements, specifically on the job training plan.

Many bills, other than budgets, will have to advance to public notice of a first committee hearing by Feb. 7 if they are to pass this session. Exceptions are bills in the rules and tax committees, and the joint budget committee.

House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville said if majority Democrats move ahead with a bill (HB 4002) to lift the exemption for farmworkers from overtime pay, such action would prompt a walkout that would deny Democrats the two-thirds majority required to conduct any business. A similar bill got to the joint budget committee but did not reach a vote of the full House in the 2021 session.

She said in a statement Tuesday: "Previous Democrat leaders lost the trust of House Republicans and Oregonians because of broken promises and partisan power-plays. We look forward to working with their new leadership but will be judging their actions and not their words."

Republicans in both chambers walked out over proposed climate-change legislation two years ago and forced an abrupt end to that session. Brown then issued an executive order for state agencies to draft a greenhouse-gas reduction plan, which the Environmental Quality Commission approved Dec. 16.

They made their comments to reporters a week ago during a legislative preview sponsored by The Associated Press.

But Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said he isn't hearing that kind of talk in his chamber.

"There have definitely been some issues in past legislative sessions, when we've had a lot of friction that has led to some unfortunate walkouts and other problematic behavior," he told reporters Tuesday. "But I don't see issues here … where people are not going to be able to come together and have productive conversations and achieve consensus. I think you are going to see a lot of folks who are going to be buying into a lot of these issues."

This also will be the last scheduled session for Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem who has been in the Legislature 38 years and has led the Senate for a record 20 years. Courtney also is the chief author of the 2010 move to annual legislative sessions.

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