Pandemic and politics cloud Oregon's 2022 Legislature prospects | State | – Blue Mountain Eagle


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COVID-19, lame-duck leaders, power shifts, political bitterness, elections and a possible walkout could combine to kneecap the 2022 session of the Legislature.
Legislative leaders on Monday moved ahead with a business-as-usual tone, beginning 37 informational virtual hearings on Tuesday in preparation for a Feb. 1 start to the 35-day “short session” of the Legislature.
But with three weeks to go, large questions loom over whether the session will start on time and if it does, how long it can go without collapsing like the 2020 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. Oregon Health & Science University forecasters predict an estimated 1,650 patients — more than twice the current 650 patients — at the peak. The Salem zip code where the capitol is located has been a top COVID-19 hot spot during the pandemic.
Limited leeway: Over the one regular and five special sessions held since COVID-19 arrived in Oregon, the Legislature has moved committee hearings online. But lawmakers must come to the Capitol to begin the session and for floor votes on passage of each bill. Earlier sessions were disrupted and delayed 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, illness, weather or other disruptions. If lawmakers start Feb. 1, they must end March 7.
End of an era: The session will feature a lame-duck governor, lame-duck senate president, and a brand new House speaker chosen before the session starts.
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Brown cannot run again because of term limits. She’ll leave office when the governor elected in November is sworn in next January.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, hopes to succeed Brown. Kotek has been speaker since 2013, the longest tenure in state history. She added to the political scramble last week, announcing she would leave the Legislature on Jan. 21 to focus on her campaign.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, announced Jan. 6 that he would not seek re-election, ending his time leading the Senate, a role he’s had since 2003. He’ll retire as the state’s longest-serving lawmaker — 36 years — when his current term ends next January.
Change at the top: House Democrats, who have a 37-23 majority, will choose the new speaker before the 2022 session. Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, wants the job, but Democrats may opt for a caretaker speaker for 2022 before regrouping after the election for the 2023 session. Adding to the political whiplash, House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner has told Oregon Public Broadcasting she will give up her position as the party’s floor leader before the 2022 session as well.
Senate Majority Leader Robb Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, first chosen majority leader for the 2021 session, will be the longest-serving legislative leader in the 2022 session with plans to stay in the Legislature. He’ll lead the Democrats, 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, a former House majority leader, steps in as an institutional stalwart for a fractured GOP caucus in which only 10 of the 12 senators follow the party leader. A faction led by Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, who is also the Oregon Republican Party chair, takes a hardline stance or boycotts votes.
In the House, Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, will lead a more cohesive Republican caucus. Chosen leader late last year after House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, stepped down to focus on her campaign for governor, it will be the first regular session with Breese-Iverson determining the strategy for her “superminority.”
The change will be unfamiliar to all but a handful of the most veteran lawmakers. To have 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.
All in 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 said Republicans wanted to honor what 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. The 2020 session died after just three bills were passed.
Drazan came up with a different way to jam the gears on the Democrats’ agenda as minority leader in 2021. Under the constitution, bills must be read in their entirety before final passage. In less contentious times, the requirement was usually 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 to back up 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, D-Springfield, 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 determined to run for governor, perhaps with an eye toward facing Kotek in the fall.
Deals or dead on arrival? Prospects of finding areas of agreement were 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.
GOP anger over last year remains among House Republicans. The 2022 election could make the Legislature move heavily Democratic or end with at least one chamber short of the 3/5 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,” Breese-Iverson 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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