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Pandemic, protest threats prompt leaders to opt for hybrid model tested last year.

When Oregon lawmakers come to Salem on Monday, Jan. 11, to open their 81st legislative cycle since statehood, some things will be familiar.

Newly elected senators and representatives will take their oaths, choose the presiding officers who control the flow of legislation, receive assignments to the committees that shape the legislation, and start the process for almost 3,000 bills and resolutions filed beforehand. (That total is about average for an odd-numbered-year session.)

But because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and more recently the anti-lockdown protesters who invaded the Capitol during a Dec. 21 special session — the 160 days scheduled for the 2021 session will be like no other in a century, since the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Senate President Peter Courtney, Oregon's longest serving legislator, said the traditional excitement of the Legislature's opening day — which has been compared to the first day of school — will be lost this time because of the pandemic and the protests. He recalled his own first day in the Legislature 40 years ago.

"It's sad because it's a memorable day the first time you are sworn in to the Oregon Legislature," the Democrat from Salem said. "But we are going to answer the bell, we are going to take the field, we are going to work hard."

After opening day, when lawmakers get down to business Jan. 19 and the session clock starts, committees will hear from the public and work on legislation in online meetings. The Capitol will remain closed to the public, as it has since March 18, and lawmakers will be limited in the number of staffers working inside. Actual in-person voting by members is expected to start in midsession around April.

But Courtney says the experience of lawmakers this past year, when they met in three special sessions for a total of five days, will help them this year.

"In some weird way, those special sessions … have taught us how to do some of the things we are doing right now," he said.

Although some members stayed away, no one reported getting sick as a result of those sessions, unlike in other states such as New Hampshire, where its new House speaker died after two weeks in the job.

Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, spoke with reporters Thursday, Jan. 7, about how lawmakers plan to conduct the session.

"It is a new way to govern because of this virtual issue, the threat of violence, the threat of disease," Courtney said. "I could go on and on. It cannot be just an experiment. This thing has got to work."

Unlike a special session, when a few bills go through a single committee controlled by the leaders, the regular session will have multiple committees generating hundreds of bills.

Kotek said the committees will allow for more advance notice of public hearings, work sessions and proposed amendments to bills, and more time for the public to submit comments. Proposed rules also would set warnings before chamber debate on a bill is closed, and for the House, five minutes instead of the usual 30 seconds for the clerk to open the automatic voting system. (The Senate still votes by oral roll call.)

But Kotek also said technology now allows virtually anyone in Oregon to testify at a committee hearing or submit written materials without having to come to Salem. The Legislature did experiment with video conferencing in the 1990s, but the pandemic has made the practice universal.

"Now with everything being remote, we have equalized the participation in a way that I think is something we want to maintain going forward," said Kotek, herself a former legislative advocate. "You do not have to be a paid lobbyist, you can do it from the comfort of your home, and you can watch all these things at your leisure. We are creating a whole new level of public engagement that I think is going to help us do our work better."

Rules dispute

But both presiding officers said they expect minority Republicans in both chambers to resist adoption of the rules that will guide the Senate and the House.

"They are not supportive of the Capitol being officially closed," Courtney said.

Proposed rules also will require members, staff and others in the Capitol to wear face masks and maintain social distance. One Republican senator (Dallas Heard of Roseburg) removed his face mask in defiance of Senate rules in effect during the Dec. 21 special session. Courtney asked him to leave the chamber, and Heard was among six senators who chose not to participate in the session.

A panel consisting of the two presiding officers and four party caucus leaders, advised by others, will reassess the situation weekly starting in February.

"We will adjust accordingly as we go," Kotek said.

Marion County, where Salem is, is among those considered at "extreme risk" of the coronavirus.

The rules require only simple majorities for adoption, and Democrats have enough votes to do so. Republicans could resort to walkouts, as they did in 2019 and 2020, to deprive Democrats of the two-thirds majorities the Oregon Constitution requires to conduct business. But since the Constitution also specifies that lawmakers take their oaths for new terms on the second Monday in January, all members have to be present.

The House will have 37 Democrats and 23 Republicans, a GOP gain of one. All 60 members serve two-year terms.

The Senate will have 18 Democrats and 12 Republicans, no change. Sixteen of the 30 senators will take oaths, one of them for an unexpired two-year term.

Unlike previous opening days, there will be no state of the state address by Gov. Kate Brown. Kotek said leaders decided that a joint session of the lawmakers plus others in the House chamber would increase the risk of spreading the virus.

In-person votes later

In-person voting by members in the chambers will remain, although the proposed rules will allow the option of remote voting. Few bills usually come up for votes in either chamber in the first few months of a session.

"Unless there is some reason to move something that is urgent, I do not think you will see bills moving until April," Kotek said. "So I think it will be just fine."

Courtney was less certain. He said there are unknowns about COVID-19 vaccinations — Oregon has been slow to roll them out — the resumption of in-person instruction in public schools, or additional federal coronavirus aid that might come from Congress.

"We're not through with the pandemic or the violence to our governmental structures," he said. "I want to leave every door and window open."

Both leaders said they anticipate taking care of the most urgent budget needs for the pandemic and the Labor Day wildfire recovery during one final meeting of the Emergency Board, whose 20 members decide budget issues between sessions of the full Legislature. The board's final meeting was scheduled Jan. 8.

As for the state's next 2021-23 budget, which starts July 1, Kotek said: "I do not think we will have to make a lot of decisions until the May forecast."

The ongoing pandemic is not the only reason for legislative leaders to want to keep the Capitol closed to the public.

"The dynamic of the pandemic is difficult enough," Kotek said. "But to also have the threat of domestic terrorists trying to disrupt the democracy of the building is an extra dynamic to complicate things."

Courtney said the breach at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was foreshadowed by Oregon's Dec. 21 breach. One state representative, Republican Mike Nearman of Independence, is under criminal investigation by Oregon State Police because a security camera showed him opening a Capitol door and letting anti-lockdown protesters get inside a vestibule before police ejected them. But the Oregon breach did not stop lawmakers from doing their business in 10 hours.

"I could almost say I expected it, or something like that, because of what had happened here," Courtney said.

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