Rent, fires, taxes and energy vie for votes as Legislature nears quitting time
The Legislature issued an eviction order to itself on Monday, June 14, saying it had to wrap up its work and get out of the Capitol in under two weeks. The official session calendar given to lawmakers says Friday, June 27, is the target date to go home.
With fatigued lawmakers and staff eyeing the exits, the buzz that the House and Senate were close to calling it a year proved no more than very wishful thinking.
"Bizarre rumors," said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland said during a Monday press call.
She listed the to-do list:
• Plans on how to spend billions of dollars are being cobbled together by the top budget committee, which will then need an up or down vote from the House and Senate.
• A suddenly yawning gap between the end of the state's current rental eviction moratorium and the earliest a plan can get in place to get money for landlords to hold off from kicking tenants to the curb if they can't pay their latest rent bill.
• Key constituencies who have helped Democrats build big majorities in the House and Senate expect promised action.
• Environmentalists want a clean electricity bill.
• Labor unions want bonuses for frontline workers who stayed on the job during the pandemic.
• Recovery from disasters in 2020 are still going on — wildfire recovery relief for those stuck in the wake of the Labor Day blazes that swept 1 million acres.
• Financial help for businesses that held on during the COVID-19 crisis but are running out of money and time to rebound during the busy summer season.
Neither COVID-19 nor the fire crisis is over. Fire officials have predicted the 2021 fire season could cause major damage across the state because of drought conditions. And COVID-19 continues to "rage" through unvaccinated groups, according to OHA. There were just 127 new cases and no new deaths reported in Oregon on Monday. But demand for vaccination has dropped significantly. Fewer than half of all Oregon residents have been fully vaccinated and there remains no federally approved vaccine for those younger than 12.
So many unvaccinated people aid the incubation of new, more virulent variants. The United Kingdom cancelled a major reopening of businesses because of a sharp surge in cases linked to the new Delta variant first found in India.
Clock is ticking
Democrats are trying to get as much done as they can with the time left. There remain scores of bills and projects stuck in a conga line that stretches from the House to the Senate and back.
Any hiccup could end up with Democrats playing a game of chicken with the Oregon Constitution, which says lawmakers get 160 days to write, propose, vote, amend and get a bill to Gov. Kate Brown. On Jan. 19, the clock starts ticking down 24-hours a day, seven-days a week, through weekends and holidays, fires, floods, ice storms and lightning strikes, pandemics and political pauses.
What started Jan. 19 must end by June 27.
Yes, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, on Monday introduced Senate Joint Resolution 24 on directing the legislature to adjourn. One thing missing: A date. The actual date and time is a fill-in-the-blanks amendment yet to come.
While not eager to say where the agenda might fall short, Democratic lawmakers in recent days have said it is unlikely that major campaign finance reform will be able to elbow its way into the final agenda.
Attempts by some Democrats to revise criminal sentencing laws to allow for more discretion on the part of judges has slowed to a stop, facing opposition from Republicans and some Democrats who support minimum sentences for major crimes.
No more walk-outs
One development that is welcome in Salem is the apparent end of walk-outs and slow-downs by the Republican minorities in the House and Senate.
Kotek and House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, struck a deal. Drazan promised Republicans would stop slowing bills and wouldn't walk out. Kotek, in exchange, gave Republicans an equal number of seats as Democrats on the House Redistricting Committee. The Senate did not make the same switch and Democrats hold the chairmanship and a 3-2 majority.
Kotek and Courtney also agreed that all lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — could submit projects and programs financed with a $240 million slice of Oregon's share of the $1.9 trillion nationwide recovery investment under the American Rescue Plan Act backed by President Joe Biden and approved by Congress.
Each senator could pick $4 million in one-time projects. House members could designate $2 million.
The catch: The money will be included in the second to last bill to come up for a vote before adjournment. Any lawmaker who changes their mind and blocks or slows legislation will find a blue pencil slash through their projects.
If they are going to have to stay in the building, Republicans will make as much noise as they can.
A Democrat-backed bill to suspend testing for high school subject competency tests for three years due to the struggles of learning at home during the pandemic won approval in the House, but reproach from Drazan.
"I worry that by adopting this bill we're giving up on our kids," Drazan said.
Republicans also continued to attack Gov. Kate Brown's policies requiring people claiming to be vaccinated in order to gain entry to some venues to show their certification of inoculations. More than 20 GOP lawmakers, using the popular conservative term "vaccination passports" for the certificates, tried to force a vote on a bill to bar requiring Oregonians to produce proof of inoculation.
"It's a violation of our privacy and our freedoms, it's discriminatory and it shows the governor doesn't believe Oregonians can be trusted," said Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, one of the key sponsors.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, was a lead sponsor in the Senate. The bill said it was "at the request of the Eastern Oregon Counties Association."
The effort was defeated 35-20, leaving the bill on Kotek's desk, where it unlikely to move prior to adjournment.
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