House speaker: Oregon Capitol reopening still weeks away
House Speaker Tina Kotek says she does not foresee the Oregon Capitol reopening to the public soon, despite a drive-through vaccination clinic for lawmakers scheduled Wednesday, April 7.
The Capitol has been closed since March 18, 2020, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Minority Republicans in both chambers have pushed for reopening the building, even though a majority of Oregon's population becomes eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine only after May 1. A lawmakers-only vaccination clinic, with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine being offered, is set for Wednesday.
Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, said general vaccination rates are going up, but so are the number of new infections reported. As of Monday, April 5, Oregon reported 167,128 cases.
"The overall positivity rate and other things are still going to be important considerations, not just vaccinations," she told reporters in a weekly conference call.
Two positive cases — they were never publicly identified as members or staff — scrapped floor sessions in the House from March 22 through 29. The Senate has not reported any cases.
Some members have already received vaccinations, and Kotek said that increasing that number can enable more face-to-face conversations among members. Right now, although the Oregon Constitution specifies that two-thirds of members must be present for business to be conducted, House rules limit the actual number of members to 25 on the floor; others must be in their offices or in the galleries.
All members and staff must wear masks while on the floor.
But Kotek also said that committee hearing rooms still would have to be cleaned more thoroughly, and more often, under COVID-19 protocols set by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division. Before the pandemic, hearing rooms could be reused within 15 minutes.
Building, committee and member staffs also would have to receive vaccinations. They are not part of the lawmakers-only drive-through clinic, which was arranged by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority.
"I would guess it would be somewhat of a hybrid, and if we are lucky, by the end of May," Kotek said. "I assume we will be back, but it will be probably close to the end of session."
The 2021 session is near the midpoint of its 160-day run, and committees face a deadline of April 13 to report out bills. All joint committees, and some specified committees in both chambers, are exempt from the deadline.
The House had 88 measures awaiting final votes on Monday, when members completed action on eight bills. Kotek has scheduled 35 1/2 hours of floor sessions this week through Saturday night.
Republicans have declined to waive the constitutional requirement for all bills to be read aloud before final passage.
The House took the better part of three days last week, until the night of April 1, for computer software to read a 170-page bill that changes the name of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission to reflect its new responsibilities. That bill finally passed, 54-1.
The House also took up several budget bills that night after Republicans agreed to suspend the reading requirement. All of them passed 55-0, including a 13-page bill that rebalances the budgets of several state agencies and adds more than $250 million for summer learning and recreational programs, community help for people without housing and for wildfire recovery.
Kotek said no pending bill is longer than 20 pages.
Republicans began demanding the reading aloud of bills in the 2019 session. But Kotek said that occurred later in the session.
"It is early in the session to be reading bills," she said. "I think that is why the tension has started earlier. The content is not the issue."
Of the 88 pending measures on Monday, she said, 75 of them were reported by committees with no dissent.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby had offered to suspend reading of bills if the 37-member Democratic majority focused on budgets, legislation dealing with the pandemic and wildfire recovery, and other bills with "bipartisan consensus support."
Kotek replied that the demand amounted to "a subversion of democracy."
But Kotek sought to tone down the rhetoric Monday.
"I certainly respect the minority's power and interest in reading bills," she said.
"I continue to have conversations with Leader Drazan. We're going to increase the number of meetings we have. We have to just keep talking with each other."
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