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Democratic leaders will address the economy, wildfires, racial justice and the pandemic economy.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Oregon House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner is part of a Democratic leadership team during what promises to be a historically unprecedented legislative session. She'll speak on Monday in a City Club moderated virtual discussion.The Oregon Legislature has barely started and it's already looking to be very unusual session, with the pandemic driving much of the agenda and scrambling longtime traditions.

Because of the coronavirus — 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.

On Monday, Jan. 25, Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, will headline a moderated "State of the Capitol" virtual discussion hosted by the nonprofit City Club of Portland to preview what Oregonians should expect. Media sponsors for the event are XRAY.FM and Pamplin Media Group.

Oregon Republican lawmakers have declined to attend the event, according to the civic organization.

The Republican absence highlights the challenges that lawmakers may face as they try to craft the 2021-23 state budget, help out Oregonians hammered by the pandemic economy, address systemic racism, rethink wildfire response and tackle issues including vaccinations and the continuing public health threat of COVID-19.

The pandemic downturn caused Oregon's statewide unemployment rate to jump from a record-low 3.5% in March to a record-high 14.2% the next month. As of November, Oregon had regained only half the jobs lost.

The other realities facing legislators are the racial justice protests prompted by the death of George Floyd last May 25 in Minneapolis, and the September 2020 wildfires that swept through Oregon and caused thousands to lose their homes.

Democrats enjoy supermajorities meeting a 60% threshold — 36 seats in the House and 18 in the Senate — that allow the party to approve revenue-raising measures without relying on Republican support.

Pandemic precautions

Early in the session, committees will hear from the public and work on legislation only 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.

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

Without the one-on-one chats in Capitol hallways and lawmaker common areas, however, the legislative machinery has slowed, some Capitol observers say.

As a result leadership and committee chairs may more tightly control which bills move forward.

Legislative leaders reject the notion that 2021 Legislature will be less democratic.

In a Jan. 7 chat with reporters, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said committees will allow for more advance notice of public hearings, work sessions and proposed amendments to bills, as well as more time for the public to submit comments.

The Jan. 25 City Club discussion will run from noon to 1 p.m., beginning with short presentations from Wagner and Smith Warner. It will be moderated by Portland Tribune editor Dana Haynes. To receive a link to the livestream video, click on this link and RSVP.


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