Pandemic and politics cloud Oregon’s 2022 Legislature prospects

All-new leadership and a tight timeline could make for a difficult session starting Feb. 1

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Legislature meets for long sessions in odd-numbered years and month-long short sessions in even-numbered years.

COVID-19, lame-duck leaders, power shifts, political bitterness, elections and a possible stall could combine to kneecap the 2022 session of the Oregon Legislature.

The state’s highest body was in business-as-usual mode last week, prepping for more than three dozen virtual meetings over three days starting Jan. 25. The so-called Legislative Days serve as a preview of “legislative concepts” for the 35-day, short session set to begin Feb. 1.

The Legislature meets for long sessions in odd-numbered years and month-long short sessions in even-numbered years.

But with only a week to go, large questions loom over the session start date and, if it does get going, how long it can last without collapsing like the 2020 short session.

COVID-19: The Feb. 1 start date is five days after the Jan. 27 forecasted peak for daily hospitalizations in the current omicron spike of COVID-19. Forecasters at Oregon Health & Science University estimate COVID-19 sufferers in hospitals will hit 1,650 patients — more than twice the 692 patients reported Jan. 10. The Salem ZIP code in which the capitol sits has been a top COVID-19 hot spot for the entire duration of the pandemic.

Limited leeway: During the one regular and five special sessions held since COVID-19 arrived in Oregon in February 2020, the Legislature has moved committee hearings online. But lawmakers must be present at the capitol to begin the session and for floor votes on passage of each bill. Earlier sessions were disrupted by positive test cases among lawmakers and staff.

Unyielding clock: There’s no overtime in regular sessions of the Legislature. Once the session starts, the Oregon Constitution requires adjournment after 35 days, including weekends. No extra days for illness, weather or other delays. If lawmakers start Feb. 1, they must finish by March 7.

Public welcome — but no guns: Legislative leaders have confirmed that the capitol will be open for the 2022 session, although hearings will be conducted via a video conference system. The capitol was closed in March 2020 as a pandemic precaution, then reopened in June 2021 when COVID-19 numbers dipped. Ongoing renovations and seismic upgrades of the building, which first opened in 1938, limit access to some areas during the session.

The building will be entered through four sets of metal detectors. It’s part of a security upgrade after a violent demonstration at the capitol in December 2020 and a law passed last year barring carrying firearms in the building.

Oregon will join about 30 state capitols that already use metal detectors, according to a 2021 count by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

End of an era: Oregon is suffering a shake-up at the top of the state political pyramid that will alter the three top leaders for the first time since February 2015.

The session will feature a lame-duck governor, lame-duck Senate president and a brand new House speaker chosen before the session starts.

Gov. Kate Brown cannot run again because of term limits.

Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) told senators on Jan. 6 that he would not seek re-election this year. He’s led the Senate since 2003, the longest term in Oregon history. He’ll retire as the state’s longest serving lawmaker, with 36 years in the House and Senate combined.

House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) resigned this month to run for governor. Kotek has been speaker since 2013, the longest tenure leading the House in state history.

Change at the top: House Democrats, who have a 37-23 majority, elected state Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) as the new speaker last week.

Adding to the political whiplash, House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland) told Oregon Public Broadcasting she plans to give up her position as the party’s floor leader before the 2022 session as well.

Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego) was first chosen majority leader for the 2021 session, but now he’ll be the longest-serving legislative leader in the 2022 session with plans to stay in the Legislature. He’ll lead the Democrats in the Senate, who have a majority of 18 of 30 seats.

The minority Republicans in both chambers have new leaders as well.

Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) is the new Senate minority leader, heading a fractured caucus. An institutional stalwart who served as House majority leader, Knopp can count only 10 of 12 senators elected Republicans as part of the GOP caucus.

The Senate GOP also features a minority-within-the-minority faction led by Sen. Dallas Heard (R-Roseburg), who is also the Oregon Republican Party chair. The group stakes out a hardline stance on Democrat’s legislation and boycotted some votes in 2021.

In the House, Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson (R-Prineville) is the new leader a more cohesive Republican caucus.

Breese Iverson was chosen for the post after Rep. Christine Drazan (R-Canby) stepped down to commit more time to her own bid for governor.

Change at the top will be unfamiliar to all but a handful of the most veteran lawmakers. Acting as the new legislative traffic controllers in a short session could be a tall task.

“There will be a leadership experience vacuum and that always leads to instability,” Knopp said.

Big plate of bills: Lawmakers could submit nearly 200 bills, with additional legislation coming from leadership and committee chairs. Each bill would have to be introduced, have a hearing, win committee approval, win a floor vote, then go to the other chamber where the process would be repeated all over. If approved and any changes reconciled, only then would it go to Brown for her signature. Al in just 35 days.

Democrats would like to deal with skill and job training, increase the number of educators, make criminal justice reforms and address safeguards and aid for the pandemic’s front line workers.

“It’s my job to help my colleagues get their bills across the finish line,” Wagner said.

Knopp wants to limit the types of bills heard, which, he said, was the will of voters who approved adding the short session in addition to the odd-year 160-day long session.

“Only bills that are budget-related, technical fixes or emergencies should pass during the short session,” Knopp said. “Democrat majorities should be wary of government overreach, as the public is done with it.”

Was there anything brewing that would cross over that line in such a way as to be unacceptable to Republicans?

“Too early to tell,” Knopp said.

Stalls and stops: Republicans do not have enough members in either chamber to block legislation. But two archaic parts of the Oregon Constitution have given them a big cudgel in recent years.

Oregon is one of the few states where more than a majority of lawmakers are needed in each chamber to create a quorum to do any business. Oregon requires two-thirds attendance, which is 40 in the House and 20 in the Senate. Republicans have walked out over carbon cap legislation and education legislation in the past, disrupting the 2019 session near the end and curtailing the 2020 session almost before it began; just three bills out of hundreds were passed that session. Democrats have employed the same tactics in the past when they didn’t hold majorities in the House and Senate.

Drazan came up with a different way to jam the gears on the Democrats’ agenda as minority leader in 2021. Under the Oregon Constitution, bills must be read in their entirety before final passage. In less contentious times, the requirement usually was waived without objection and just the short title of the bill was read.

If an objection was raised, it took a two-thirds vote of the House to overcome the objection. Objections were used sparingly on highly controversial bills. Drazan employed a blanket objection to all legislation, which led to a massive backlog of bills until a deal was struck with Kotek to speed things up.

Kotek agreed to give Drazan a seat on the House Redistricting Committee, giving it 3-to-3 parity on the panel. The move surprised many Democrats, some of whom hammered Kotek for unilaterally giving away the majority’s control of 2022 mapmaking for districts that would last for a decade.

“It’s just inexplicable and arrogant,” U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio told Politico magazine.

When a special session was held in September to approve redistricting, committees had to be formally re-established. Kotek announced the redistricting panel would revert to a Democrat majority. Drazan called for a censure of Kotek, which failed. She then decided to run or governor, perhaps with an eye toward facing Kotek in the fall.

Deals or dead on arrival? Prospects of finding areas of agreement are possible, leaders of both chambers and both parties said. But whether 2022 and its many challenges is a short time will make reaching consensus a challenge.

Bitterness remains among many House Republicans. The 2022 election could make the Legislature move heavily Democratic or end with at least one chamber short of the three-fifths supermajority to pass taxes and other financial legislation. That leaves little incentive to approve bills to bolster Democratic incumbents in November.

“There’s no reason we can’t successfully pass essential bills that solve problems for Oregonians this year unless our Democrat leadership fails to listen to Oregonians by charging ahead with a partisan agenda,” Breese-Iverson said.

If her caucus sees bills they think fit the “partisan agenda” moving toward approval, Breese-Iverson said slowing down the legislative assembly line was an option.

“The reading of bills is an essential backstop in response to failed Democrat leadership that shuts out differing opinions and concerns,” she said. “We hope it won’t be necessary this session and that we can work on bipartisan legislation to benefit the entire state fairly, but it’s not off the table.”

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