The OPB headline “Policies take a backseat to politics” captured the highlights of last week’s legislative session as Democrats and Republicans cut a deal on redistricting and a second GOP senator abandoned the party, further shrinking the Republican Senate minority and its influence.
OPB’s story lamented that the “Oregon way” of working together has devolved to the Washington, DC way of perpetual political gridlock, resulting in legislative logjams and threats of walkouts as the legislature heads into the second half of the 2021 session.
The “deal” guarantees equal partisan representation on the legislative committee that will draw lines for congressional and legislative districts for the next decade based on new Census data. In return, House Republicans agreed to waive the full reading of bills, which has slowed down voting, producing a huge backlog of pending legislation that would have required marathon floor sessions, including on weekends, to clear.
The “Oregon way” of working together has devolved to the Washington, DC way of perpetual political gridlock, resulting in legislative logjams and threats of walkouts.
Before the deal was struck, the redistricting committee had three Democrats and two Republicans. Under the deal, Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, and Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, will be co-chairs and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, was added to the committee.
The “deal” had a second political component. House Democrats agreed that each of the 60 House districts will receive at least $2 million in one-time investments from the state’s allocation of funding under the American Rescue Plan. Each Senate district, which includes two House districts, will receive $4 million. In addition to placating minority Republicans, the deal avoids awkward intra-party fights over the pool of investment money. When asked to submit funding ideas, lawmakers collectively proposed projects exceeding $30 billion.
Despite the deal, legislative Republicans could still walk out, the ultimate “nuclear” option for a minority party. The lack of a walkout ignited a series of political firestorms. Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod may face a recall effort by angry constituents who faulted his decision to show up for a Senate floor vote on gun legislation instead of walking out and denying Democrats a quorum. The East Oregonian carried a story about a separate recall effort in the Eastern Oregon district of Senator Bill Hansell, who also attended the floor session. There are 18 Senate Democrats, but 20 senators are needed to establish a quorum for floor votes.
Freshman Senator Art Robinson of Grants Pass, announced he was leaving the GOP caucus, following in the footsteps of Senator Brian Boquist of Dallas who earlier declared himself an independent. Senator Dallas Heard of Myrtle Creek reportedly doesn’t attend Republican caucus meetings, which leaves the caucus with only nine active members. All three didn’t attend the floor session when Senate Bill 554 was considered. Senate Republicans earlier in the session staged a one-day walkout.
There was hectic committee activity last week as lawmakers scrambled to push out bills before the do-or-die deadline for the session. For example, House Bill 2367 that would have prevented sweeps of homeless camps in public spaces died in committee while House Bill 3115, which allows homeless people to occupy some public spaces, stayed alive. HB 2367 is in response to a 2018 federal appeals court ruling outlawing blanket bans on homeless encampments.
Another survivor of the do-or-die deadline was Senate Bill 401, which would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences as required by Measure 11 approved by voters in 1994. Observers indicate SB 401 faces more amendments. Three other bills addressing mandatory minimum sentences fell by the wayside.
Two additional bills survived despite controversial provisions – House Bill 2021, a comprehensive clean energy bill, and Senate Bill 582 that would require packaging manufacturers to fund recycling for their products.
The Oregon House passed House Bill 3139 that would require mental health professionals to inform the parents of teens who they discover contemplating suicide.
The Oregon Senate approved Senate Bill 282A to give renters until February next year to repay accumulated late rent. The Oregon House approved House Bill 2966A to give businesses forced to close because of pandemic restrictions until September to pay missed rent.
Senate Bill 172, which would give the Oregon Employment Department more latitude in allowing jobless workers to keep overpayments caused by state error, passed unanimously out of the Senate Business and Labor Committee. The Oregon House voted 56-0 in favor of House Bill 3389 that spares employers the cost of reimbursing the state for pandemic-related unemployment insurance.
Private daycare and preschool program receiving public funding wouldn’t be allowed to expel students effective in 2026 under Senate Bill 236 that is headed for a Senate floor vote. A companion measure, House Bill 2166, would create a training program to prevent childhood suspensions.
House Bill 2100, which makes the first change in 30 years in how homeless service funds are distributed, received unanimous support to send to the Joint Ways and means Committee. A task force would be set up to ensure funds currently distributed to 18 community action agencies across the state are used to serve people of color and other underserved groups.
The Portland Tribune published a short history of Oregon redistricting. When the 2011 Oregon legislature produced a redistricting plan that went unchallenged, it was the first-time lawmakers completed the constitutional task in a century. The story notes redistricting entered its modern era in the 1960s following US Supreme Court decisions requiring equal population. In 1981, a Democratic-controlled legislature passed a redistricting plan that GOP Governor Vic Atiyeh signed, but which contained a flaw that left one Senate district unrepresented by an incumbent for two years. Republican Secretary of State Norma Paulus was directed by the Oregon Supreme Court to fix the problem, which she accomplished by drawing an incumbent Democrat out of his district in retaliation for the senator’s shelving of election bills she proposed.