Overreach? Productive session? Lawmakers shine light on accomplishments
SALEM — The highly public downfall of a legislative plan to cap the state's greenhouse gas emissions cast a long shadow over the last two weeks of the legislative session.
Despite its acrimonious conclusion, though, Gov. Kate Brown and other Democrats were quick to tout their successes during the session.
People across the state, from working parents to students to business owners, will be affected by the Legislature's work, which concluded Sunday evening. Democrats cite as key accomplishments work to attack the state's housing crisis, provide paid leave from work for new parents and other caregivers and to ask Oregonians whether the state can set limits on campaign donations.
"I just think this has been an incredibly productive session," said Senate Democratic Leader Ginny Burdick of Portland. "We've achieved things that have been kind of the Holy Grail for years, primarily school funding."
Brown told reporters on Monday, July 1, that she'd been fighting for some of those policies since entering state office in the early 1990s.
As a candidate for the House in 1992, Brown's platform was "stable, adequate" funding for public schools. This year, lawmakers passed House Bill 3427 — which raises about $1 billion a year in new business taxes to pay for improvements to the state's schools.
"The Student Success Act marks a turning point for education in Oregon," Brown said. "We can finally invest in an education system that will ensure every single student in our state is on a path to realizing their dreams for the future."
Some of what lawmakers did will require Oregonians to weigh in next year. Voters will be asked whether to amend the state's Constitution to allow for restrictions on campaign donations, and whether to raise taxes on cigarettes and e-cigarettes to help pay for public health care.
Lawmakers got more done than Brown said she had expected, including the paid family leave proposal and a law overturning mandatory minimum sentences for juvenile offenders, a modification to Measure 11.
Behind those accomplishments was a political shift — and some very tough negotiations between parties. "It was pretty stunning what we were able to accomplish," Burdick said. "We were able to accomplish it through some pretty stormy waters at the time."
In November, Democrats gained significant majorities in the House and Senate enough to pass most bills without Republican help. However, a constitutional requirement gave Republicans leverage and came into play in a big way this session. Each chamber needed at least two Republicans to have enough legislators present to legally conduct business.
Republicans in the Senate left twice to protest major bills — the school funding measure. and then cap-and-trade. In so doing, the Senate couldn't vote. The school funding legislation passed after Brown struck a deal with the Senate Republican leader to kill bills tightening restrictions on guns and requiring more kids in public schools to get vaccinated. But the cap-and-trade walkout was another matter, thrusting many other bills into uncertainty while lawmakers hurtled toward a June 30 deadline to finish their work.
Republicans returned Saturday, June 29, with just enough time to pass a full budget for the state before adjourning.
The House Republican caucus said the session was "defined by overreach."
"The failure of cap-and-trade was a turning point," House Republican Leader Carl Wilson said in a statement. "The thousands of workers that came to the Capitol this past week sent a clear message to the supermajority that enough is enough."
Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, who leads Republicans in the Senate and spearheaded what were two improbably successful strikes by his party, could not be reached for comment.
"The progressive policies that my Democrat colleagues have wanted for many years, they were successful in passing an enormous number of things that are going to affect Oregonians significantly," said Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. "I can say some were good. Many, I voted against because I think they're overreaching."
Bentz pointed to the gross receipts tax on business to raise money for schools, a new law to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses and to limit what crimes qualify for sentencing to the death penalty. Versions of each of those policies have gone before Oregon voters via ballot measure in the past.
"I think it's been rather surprising that these changes have been made without chance for the people of Oregon to weigh in on them," Bentz said.
It was with a detectable sense of relief that lawmakers adjourned on Sunday evening, but some lawmakers have raised concerns about how the Legislature functions in the future.
Some Republicans say their constituents aren't heard when one party dominates the political process. "Communities that we represent out in rural Oregon have just as many rights as the folks in Portland do," said Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, before lawmakers adjourned. "And that's really all I'm speaking to, is that there needs to be a renewing of mutual respect between the two parties and between the majority and the minority."
Democrats have worried publicly about a breakdown of the Legislature's institutional norms. "If you look at the institution and the hit it took, it's at least D and maybe even an F," said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. "It was really troubling to me to see this institution get clobbered the way I think it was getting clobbered. And I am concerned about that."
"I think it's really clear that Senate Republican actions have subverted the Democratic process," Brown said. "And instead of staying at the table and engaging in a productive discussion, they took their marbles and went home."
She said it was an "important conversation" for the Senate and House to have about whether to change the state's quorum rules.
Since time limits on legislative sessions were enacted, lawmakers must act more quickly to get their work done and a walkout is more disruptive.
Baertschiger told reporters on Friday, June 28, that he was reluctant to walk out and thinks the tactic could be abused in the future. Bentz said it should only be used in "the most incredibly difficult of circumstances."
"The only reason that we used the tactic is because we viewed the cap-and-trade bill as an existential threat to Oregon in general and eastern Oregon in particular," Bentz said, "Because of the fact that energy is so incredibly important to our lives and to cede control of the price of energy to California — that won't work."
Meanwhile, issues of the overall climate and workplace culture in the Capitol remain in the background. Next week, the Senate is expected to hold a hearing over remarks Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, has made, including saying that Oregon State Police ought to be "bachelors" and "heavily armed" should they be sent to bring him back to the Senate to vote.
"Sen. Boquist's behavior was unbecoming of an elected official and an embarrassment to the entire state of Oregon," Brown said. "I expect the Senate to hold him accountable."