Oregon Legislature: Clever compromise could solve multitude of crises
Late on the evening of Wednesday, April 14, a bit of legislative legerdemain snuck through the Oregon House, gliding under the radar of almost everyone watching.
A compromise was reached that could end a Republican tactic to delay every bill in the House. In exchange for this, Republicans will get more say in how all 90 legislative districts in Oregon get redrawn later this year.
This seems like a win-win decision on several levels.
Pamplin Media Group's Peter Wong posted the news on social media Wednesday evening, and Oregon Public Broadcasting's Dirk Vanderhart posted a story later that evening. Still, otherwise, the potentially seismic shakeup received little notice.
Here are the solutions and the crises they hope to address:
The slo-mo House
Republicans are in the minority in both the House and the Senate. And in the House, they opted to throw a spanner in the gears, slowing down every bit of business and leaving bills even bipartisan, non-controversial bills dying on the vine.
The tactic is this: Bills must be read in their entirety before being voted on, unless two-thirds of House members waive that necessity. This year, 23 Republicans have refused to do that. Each bill must be slogged through, out loud, in its entirety, line by line, page by page, slowing all legislation to a crawl.
Take, for example, a bill to change the name of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. It sounds simple enough, but it s a 170-page bill, and by refusing to waive the rule, all 170 pages had to be read aloud. It took the better part of three days. And this wasn t a principled stand against a bill the GOP didn't like. After reading the cumbersome document, night and day, the bill passed 54-1.
It's tough to be in the minority (as Oregon Democrats often have been in decades past). If you can't get your bills to pass, it s tempting to gum up the works, so no bills pass. It's a less dramatic strategy than the Republican walkouts that stymied the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, but not a lot less dramatic.
In theory, the compromise reached on Wednesday will get the House moving again, doing the people's business. That's a win.
Lines in the sand
The other half of the deal works like this: Every 10 years, following the national Census, the lines between Oregon's 60 House seats and 30 Senate seats get redrawn. By law in Oregon, it falls to the Legislature itself to redraw their districts. Some voters have long feared that leaving it in the Legislature's hands would lead to gerrymandering, drawing tortured, goofy-looking districts to cluster one set of voters on either side of the line. In short, people fear, letting legislators redraw their districts means lawmakers pick their voters rather than voters picking their lawmakers.
But this year is uniquely complicated because former President Trump attempted to alter who is included in Census numbers. Courts ruled against the changes, but the result is this: The Census block figures, which tell us how many people should fit in each district, will be delayed for months well past the deadline as laid out in the state Constitution.
Remember: To be fair, each House district should have more or less the same number of Oregonians as the other 59 districts; and the same for the Senate.
But an Oregon Supreme Court decision earlier in April has given parties an incentive not to stall. The court gave them a bit more time, until Sept. 27, to adopt the new districts. If lawmakers fail to develop a plan by then, the task will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.
Republicans do not want a former Democratic senator who has been in the secretary of state's office only a few months to decide district boundaries. We don't know if Fagan could resist the siren song of partisanship and draw a fair map. But the GOP doesn t want to find out.
Now here comes the clever bit: The committee tasked with redrawing the districts, in the House, had a Democratic chairwoman and more Democrats than Republicans on the committee. That's typically how it works when you re the majority party. But late Wednesday, House Speaker Tina Kotek announced that Democratic Chairwoman Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego would be joined by a new co-chair, Republican Shelly Boshart Davis of Albany. And the House Republican leader, Rep. Christine Drazan of Canby, was added to the committee, giving it three Democrats and three Republicans.
There has perhaps never been so little trust in lawmakers as we see today in Oregon and the nation. Republicans, already in a weakened minority, were likely to object to whatever districts were drawn up by the Democratic majority.
A population expert at Portland State University recently said that legislative districts based in Washington County, Deschutes County (think Bend), and those straddling the Multnomah-Clackamas line would have to shrink because their populations have grown beyond the average. Districts based on the coast and most areas east of the Cascades will need to expand boundaries.
That would result in more urban lawmakers (where Democrats hold sway) and fewer rural lawmakers (where Republicans prevail).
The court challenges to a Democrat-led redistrict plan likely would have been epic.
But if the committee has two chairs, from both parties, and an equal number of members, the results will be much harder to challenge.
And Republicans won't be tempted to slow down or walk out of the redistricting proceedings before the Sword of Damocles Secretary Fagan hangs over their heads.
In one quiet chess move, the House on Wednesday may have solved an array of crises: Stopping the logjam; injecting a level of fairness into the upcoming battle to redraw their districts; and opting for a bipartisan approach that likely will look good to voters weary of partisan bickering.
Time will tell. But this appears to be a brilliant bit of give-and-take.
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