Lawmakers grind their way toward 'sine die'
"Sine die is imminent," declared Senate President Peter Courtney on Tuesday, using one of the secret decoder ring-needed terms of the Oregon Legislature.
Translation: We're almost through for 2021.
But not so close you can't pop a last-minute bill into the hopper, which Courtney did Tuesday morning, June 1, with a bill to ban horse racing in Oregon.
With just 25 days left before the Oregon constitution requires the Legislature to shut down the 2021 session, Courtney's dual actions reflected the frenzy of sometimes contrary activity in the House and Senate.
A day after Salem hit a record 96 degrees, the House and Senate were back to turn up the heat on the pace of legal manufacturing. Gov. Kate Brown was signing bills at a steady pace, including a new concealed weapons ban for the Capitol. The announcement came as the secretary of state issued a notification a proposed referendum for the 2022 ballot that would undo the law.
The House had 78 bills and resolutions scheduled for a final vote on Wednesday, June 2. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, called a double session, with House members called to the floor at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Committee meetings began at 8 a.m. with some scheduled to start as late as 5:30 p.m.
The Senate moved at a more sedate pace, with just 16 bills handled in a morning session. But it has 22 more scheduled for Thursday, June 3.
Action, not excuses
Courtney used a quote from Florence Nightingale, the nurse and social reformer born in 1820, to send the message he wanted lawmakers to cooperate on getting through the session without any more delaying tactics.
"I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took an excuse," Courtney said.
In an unusually late move, two bills were introduced. Senate Bill 871 would essentially bar horse racing in Oregon. Senate Bill 870, authored by Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, would revise disclosures on campaign finance contributions.
Courtney's office did not explain how the bills might be considered this late in the session.
The legislation became a blur on Tuesday and Wednesday, as bills churned out by the dozens. A tiny sample of topics included extending approval of take-out cocktail sales, residential rent assistance, extending a moratorium on foreclosures, barring insurance companies from requiring the use of mail-order pharmacies, and scores of other issues.
News of the gun rights referendum spread late Tuesday. It was submitted by three Republican House members: Reps. Mike Nearman of Independence, E. Werner Reschke of Klamath Falls and David Brock Smith of Port Orford.
Numbered Initiative 301, the referendum would require supporters to gather 74,680 signatures by 90 days after the adjournment of the Legislature in order to qualify for the November 2022 ballot. If the Legislature goes to June 27, the signatures would have to be in before Sept. 25.
The new gun law goes into effect 91 days after adjournment. If the signatures are collected by the 90-day deadline, the law would go on hold until the vote in November 2022.
Nearman faces criminal charges in Marion County for allegedly allowing protestors into the Capitol during a special session in December. It took state police in riot gear to expel the group.
Playing 'vaccine cop'
Despite the looming deadline to head for the exits, the House and Senate stuck to some of their daily traditions that chew up time. There were the symbolic actions that serve as political litmus tests or to tout a favorite topic.
The House passed Senate Joint Memorial 4, calling on Congress to act on reparations for descendants of slaves. It passed on a party-line vote of 35-23, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against.
Both chambers each day set aside time for "courtesies," or positive remarks. They are followed by "remonstrances," a term dating to the 13th century that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "a forcefully reproachful protest."
Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, rose during courtesies to note "Potato Day," reminding his colleagues that "much of the state's crop is grown in my very own district."
Hansell said $200 million dollars worth of potatoes, accounting for 25% of all french fries exported overseas, came from Oregon. He also showed off a canvas bag that was sent to each senator that included a potato and spud-inspired recipes.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, rose during remonstrances to criticize Gov. Kate Brown's executive order requiring residents to show certification of vaccination to enter businesses without a mask. He said the White House, Centers for Disease Control and 48 out of 50 states were against "vaccine passports," a popular term in conservative circles.
"Even the left-wing ACLU is against it," Knopp said, to a few titters of laughter from Democrats. "Businesses don't want to play vaccine cop. We shouldn't make them."
With most of the 34 committees shut down last week, bills piled up in the few panels that are exempt from deadlines.
About 200 bills were parked in the House and Senate rules committees. Some will get pulled out and sent through for a floor vote. But the committees are also known for being a legislative graveyard, a place where bills go to die with the end of the session.
One committee that can still meet is the House Committee on Conduct, the arbiter and enforcer of the chamber's rules. In a Tuesday evening meeting, the panel upheld a complaint by Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson, R-Prineville, that a suggestive text from Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, amounted to sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment. The panel was split on whether Witt's text amounted to a suggestion that he would trade a vote for sexual favors from Breese Iverson, which Witt denies. The panel left any punishment or action for Witt to a future meeting.
An issue lurking in the background may set up a partisan battle in the final days of the session. The Capitol, which is controlled by the Legislature, has been closed to the public since March 2020 because of the pandemic. Hearings and committee meetings have been done remotely, with lawmakers coming to the chamber floors — masks required — for final votes.
Republicans have argued that the capitol should be open so that the public can take part in the lawmaking of their state. With at least four reported cases of COVID-19 among lawmakers and staff, Democrats have said the move would undermine public health.
Legislative leaders have said they would reopen the building once Marion County reached the lower risk level status determined by the Oregon Health Authority and Brown. Marion County is at high-risk level, the most restrictive in use. The Zip Code that includes the Capitol has had at times the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the state. Marion County is far from reaching the benchmark Brown has set for a waiver on restrictions.
To be moved to lower level, a county must have given at least one dose of vaccine to 65% of the adult population. As of Wednesday, June 2, Marion County had administered shots to 56.9% of residents.
But Brown has also promised that all 36 counties would move to lower level once 70% of those eligible statewide have had one shot. As of Wednesday, that number was 62.5%.
At that pace, the state mark will likely be surpassed within the next two weeks. That is right around the earliest the Legislature would adjourn, "sine die," a Latin term that in politics means to adjourn without a specific date to meet in the future.
But Kotek has said the House will likely be in session until just before the deadline, with lawmakers saying June 25 is the likeliest end point.
No plans have been announced on what the Legislature would do if Marion County went to lower level status before adjournment.
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