Short legislative session will be big on emotional issues
The 2020 Oregon Legislature convenes Feb. 3 and is expected to gavel out the first week in March.
Being an even-numbered year, this is a short session. In odd-numbered years, sessions can last three months or more. But a short session is a sprint: It'll be go, go, go for lawmakers, their staff, lobbyists, journalists and advocates for about four very fast weeks.
The deadline for a bill to pass out of policy committees in the "first chambers" (that is, House bills to pass the House or Senate bills to pass the Senate) is Feb. 13. That's eight working days from the first gavel.
Work sessions in the "second chamber" — House bills in the Senate and Senate bills in the House — have to be finished by Feb. 25.
There won't be that many bills to worry about. House members are allotted two bills each to introduce for the session. Senators get only one. Committees get three bills each. The governor's executive branch gets five.
What can we expect?
Everyone says a carbon-pollution bill, often called cap and trade, is the No. 1 take-home bill of Gov. Kate Brown and the Democratic leadership. But that will be a tough request in a super-fast session — Democrats failed to get the votes they wanted on this issue in 2018 or 2019.
During the 2019 session, Republicans walked out of the Senate over this issue, denying the majority party enough votes to conduct business. It was the GOP's second successful walkout of the session. We're not wondering whether the Republican senators will walk out in 2020, we're wondering when they plan to do so. After all, the walkout is a stalling tactic. It worked twice for them in a three-month session. It would work even better in a one-month session.
Real political leadership by Democrats would involve finding a way to get the Republicans on board, either by modifying cap and trade, or by giving them something else. Because we now know, the Dems don't have the sheer muscle to force this bill into law.
Another bill that reporters in our capitol bureau have been told to expect is one that limits non-medical exemptions for childhood immunization shots. In recent years, so-called "anti-vaxxers" have been able to flood lawmakers' voicemail, email and traditional mail with highly emotional testimony opposing vaccinations. With no medical or scientific validity, they argue that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine — arguably one of the greatest public health victories of the 20th century — causes autism. (It doesn't.)
But so fraught is the testimony — including children paraded through committee hearings — that lawmakers have become wary of courting this bill again.
If it comes to pass this session — and we hope it will — it will require gutsy leadership from Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek; also, Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick and House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner.
Will we see the leadership necessary to keep Oregon children safer from the measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases? We sure hope so. And we'll be watching.
Finally, 17 members of the Legislature have announced they are retiring, seeking other office, or are otherwise not interested in re-election in November. That's an unusually high figure. And in December, several of the departing lawmakers cited an increased level of partisan bickering as one cause for their leaving.
The Legislature is not Congress. It's always been a more bipartisan sort of chamber, in which the grand majority of bills get some sort of support from both major parties.
Here's hoping leadership can find the path forward to maintain or renew that tradition.
Want to contact your lawmakers? If you don't know who they are, go to OregonLegislature.gov. In the middle of the page, on the right-hand side, is a field called "Find Your District and Legislators." Fill in your address, and all your elected officials will pop up.
The 2020 Legislature kicks off in just 11 days. Ladies and gentlemen – start your engines.
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