Lawmakers take a slow ride to Legislature's second half
Disease, dysfunction, and deadlines are challenging the Oregon Legislature as it starts the second half of the 2021 session.
April 9 was the 80th day of the 160 days the Oregon constitution allows lawmakers to meet this year. The session has been marked so far by shutdowns and slowdowns. Senate Republicans walked out for the third session in a row, but just for a day to protest Democrat's lock on the agenda.
But some GOP senators would receive death threats from gun control opponents for not walking out on a bill to bar concealed weapons in state buildings. One email had a subject line "SELLOUT" and a chilling one-line message: "You should be shot."
Oregon State Police is investigating the threats.
All the turmoil has played out against the rollercoaster ride of falling, then rising COVID-19 numbers. As of April 12, the House has passed 115 bills since gaveling to order Jan. 19. It has a backup of 122 bills scheduled for final votes.
"The tension has started earlier," House Speaker Tina Kotek said. "I think it is really hard to tell what is happening."
Committees in both chambers scurried to slide under the April 13 deadline to have legislation approved by committees and sent to the floor of the originating chamber (House or Senate). Otherwise, the mass majority die.
"A number of those bills at the end of the day will not be ready for deadline," Kotek said. "Things are pretty fluid."
What survives will still have a daunting road to the governor's desk due to a basic partisan split on the direction of the session.
Democrats hold a 37-23 supermajority in the House and an 18-11 supermajority in the Senate, with a former GOP senator declaring himself an independent, but voting most of the time with his old party.
Both parties agree the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 wildfires, along with the state budget, are at the top of the agenda. Republicans say that's enough for the narrowly focused session they want.
"The House is running a crushing number of committees and pushing controversial legislation," House Republican Leader Christin Drazan, R-Canby, said early in the session.
Democrats say they have large majorities because voters want more: Affordable housing, health care, environmental safeguards, police reform, social equity and gun control.
"Votes matter," Kotek has said of Republican opposition.
Moving in slo-mo
Whatever the outcome, the Legislature has 75 days as of Wednesday — weekends included — left on its calendar. After June 28, lawmakers are required to adjourn, no matter what. Then go home and enjoy summer.
But be ready to come back in the autumn.
That caveat arose April 9 when the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature would draw the increasingly overdue legislative district maps to be used for the 2022 election. COVID-19 is delaying U.S. Census data used for the once-a-decade redistricting by up to six months.
The court said the Legislature could return in a special session later this year to do the mapmaking. No dates are set, yet. But the window to draw maps that would be used until 2032 will be weeks instead of months. It will limit the chance for public comment and may force lawmakers to use possibly iffy data that could attract lawsuits.
That is a future fight. There's an overflowing plate of problems right now.
Democrats have enough votes to pass any legislation without Republican votes.
While unable to defeat bills, Republicans can slow or stall all lawmaking. Senate Republicans held a one-day walkout early in the session to remind Democrats that they ignored GOP input at their peril. Republicans in both chambers departed Salem in 2020, killing the session with hundreds of bills awaiting action.
Drazan has opted instead to use parliamentary rules to require bills be read out loud in their entirety. The glacial process reached its bizarre apex when a computer program with a metallic female monotone voice read a 170-page bill. It took two days to finally vote on mostly technical revisions to the re-designated Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.
Kotek has countered Drazan's slo-mo move by doubling the weekly floor sessions to including evenings and Saturdays. Starting April 15, Kotek is pushing that to three sessions per day.
GOP death threats
Partisan jockeying goes on amid a pandemic that has sickened 170,850 and killed 2,441 in Oregon as of Monday.
The Capitol has been closed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis. The Oregon Health Authority has reported the Salem zip code that includes the Capitol has most often recorded the highest number of new infections per week throughout the crisis. Committee meetings can be held virtually, but final votes on bills have to be done on the floor of the two chambers in the Capitol.
Republicans have called for reopening the Capitol, citing Democrats' lengthy agenda and now extended floor debates as evidence that the infection danger is either over-hyped or Kotek in particular is putting politics before lawmakers' health.
Democrats have countered that it is Republicans who are causing undue exposure to infection by insisting on so much dead time in the building while bills are read. The House has twice shut down for short periods amid reports of a positive test but has not reported the person infected as a House member.
Gov. Kate Brown stepped in to order a special vaccination clinic on April 7 for any as-yet unvaccinated lawmakers, who qualified as "essential workers" as of March 31. They received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the same one Brown was vaccinated with last month.
While the fight in the House has hogged the political spotlight, the Senate has remained mostly collegial, keeping its usual hours and pace. That hasn't always sat well with the most bitter opponents of the Democratic agenda.
When GOP senators vehemently opposed a bill to ban concealed weapons in state buildings late last month, Democrats passed it 16-7 with no Republicans voting for the bill.
But afterward, some gun control opponents were furious there was any vote at all, saying the GOP senators should have walked out as they had before over taxes and environmental legislation.
A Clackamas County woman has mounted a recall drive against Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton. Senate Republican Caucus spokesman Dru Draper confirmed late last week that some senators have received death threats. Draper showed Oregon Capital Bureau one email telling a senator that he should be gunned down.
"We have instructed members to report all emails like these to OSP," Draper said.
Girod said earlier walkouts over tax proposals and a carbon cap program had created expectations of more departures to block voting on multiple issues.
"People now expect it for all bills that, from a Republican perspective, are seen as a bad bill," Girod told Oregon Public Broadcasting. "The problem that we had is trying to walk for three and a half months just was not doable."
Girod said the GOP caucus discussed a walkout over the gun bill. Girod and other senior lawmakers in the party said they could not abandon the session with the state budget and bills to aid state businesses hurt by the pandemic still awaiting approval. It wasn't unanimous — four Republicans were recorded as absent when the vote was taken.
Whether some kind of reconciliation can be found between Kotek and Drazan will be worked out in this second half of the session. Bad blood has surfaced before between Courtney and Girod.
No controversial bills have yet come up for a vote that would send a bill to Brown to be signed into law. Despite the slowdown, such votes will soon be common. Will Republicans stay or go?
Democratic leaders have ruled out capitulation, but last week dangled a carrot to entice Republicans from departing Salem early.
All legislators received invitations in early April from Kotek and Courtney asking for ideas on how to spend about $780 million in federal money. The letter called for ideas on using part of the state's portion of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden.
"We are really looking for bigger and bolder ideas to invest that money for the future, for one-time things and some ongoing needs to move our state forward," Kotek wrote.
Any of the new projects would be money on top of the $1.6 billion sent directly by Congress to Oregon counties, cities, and towns.
With current financial largess from Congress unlikely to be repeated and a possible 2023-25 state budget crunch looming, Kotek encouraged lawmakers to act on the opportunity in the 2021-22 budget.
Democrats' message: There could be a Sequoia-sized "Christmas Tree" in July, if the Legislature is still there to pass the bill.
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