Insiders Think 2023 Legislative Session Is Most Likely a Wrap
Gloom overtook the Capitol last week with predictions the 2023 legislative session is fundamentally over because of the Senate Republican walkout. Hundreds of bills will be marooned though Senate Rs offered to return the last day of session to pass “bipartisan” budget bills. Meanwhile, they are raising money to challenge Measure 113 sanctions in court.
Governor Kotek attempted to bridge the political stalemate by talking separately with Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses. Wary of a possible trick to lure them back into the Capitol, Senate Republicans chose to meet with Kotek virtually, an act she labeled as ‘disrespectful’. Her conversations didn’t produce a breakthrough.
Because of a higher than expected revenue forecast, Democrats agreed to boost the K-12 budget by $300 million to $10.2 billion. The Oregon House, on a party-line vote, approved a referral to voters to install ranked choice voting for statewide elections. The House passed a Senate bill and sent it to Kotek that would stiffen penalties for retail theft.
The governor unveiled her effort to upgrade preparation of teachers to help students learn to read. Kotek also introduced a new wrinkle to pending legislation to add more public defenders. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum recused herself from an investigation into potentially illegal campaign donations to Democrats. And, inexplicably, Russia imposed travel sanctions on Kotek, Rosenblum and first-term Congresswoman Val Hoyle, none of whom planned a trip there.
The Senate Walkout
The work of the Oregon legislature has largely ground to a halt. The House can pass bills already approved by the Senate. The Joint Ways and Means Committee gamely sent policy bills to subcommittees, but only 13 have been scheduled for hearings. The House Speaker and Senate President declared sine die is imminent last week, which procedurally means bills can be scheduled for hearings and work sessions on one-hour notice.
Budget bills for the 2023-2025 biennium are in limbo, though the legislature passed a continuing resolution to maintain current spending levels through September 15. If a new K-12 education budget isn’t approved this session, schools could face starting a new year this fall with $1 billion less than Democrats have earmarked for the next biennium. Other challenges include agency realignments such as the State Fire Marshal becoming an independent agency July 1.
Early adjournment of the 2023 legislative session would be followed by Kotek calling a special session, but that poses complications, too. The Capitol will be totally torn up starting in August. Many lawmakers planned post-session vacations in July.
The Walkout and Measure 113
Voter-approved Measure 113 makes lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences in a session ineligible to seek re-election. However, Senate Republicans, backed by some legal analysts, question the constitutionality of Measure 113, as well as the clarity of the language in the ballot measure.
The Secretary of State’s office has asked the Oregon Department of Justice for a legal opinion on when the penalty of re-election ineligibility under Measure 13 would apply. The way the initiative was drafted is unclear when the exclusion should occur – in the session immediately following the expiration of their terms or the one after that.
“We are seeking a legal opinion from the DOJ to clarify in which election the qualification issue should be enforced,” says Ben Morris, a spokesman for acting Secretary of State Cheryl Myers. “We’ll follow their advice in our role as the filing officer for statewide elections.”
This is the actual language Measure 113 inserted into the Oregon Constitution:
Failure to attend, without permission or excuse, ten or more legislative floor sessions called to transact business during a regular or special legislative session shall be deemed disorderly behavior and shall disqualify the member from holding office as a Senator or Representative for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.
The Senate Republicans plan to challenge the constitutionality of Measure 13, based in part on how absences are determined as excused or unexcused solely at the discretion of the Senate President. There is a separate challenge about the constitutionality of declaring an unexcused absence for a senator who is away for a religious observance. The caucus, led by Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, are fundraising, including a crowdfunding account, to pay for their legal challenge.
The Walkout’s Legislative Toll
After a markedly productive first half of the legislative session that saw passage of major legislation, the Senate Republican walkout threaten to tank hundreds of pending bills, including those sponsored by Senate Republicans. Kotek’s effort to mediate failed, despite stressing the toll of what will amount to a mid-May legislative adjournment.
Knopp has said his caucus will return for one day, June 25, the last day this legislative session can meet under a constitutional deadline, to vote on budget measures. There is a question of whether one day is enough to pass all of the budget bills, and whether Democrats would agree to a ‘Christmas tree” measure that typically funds special projects legislators request.
Dems Agree to Boost School Funding
Higher-than-expected revenues persuaded Democratic leaders to accede to demands from K-12 advocates to boost biennial school spending above $10 billion.
House Okays Ranked-Choice Voting
The House agreed on a party-line vote to send a referral to voters in the 2024 general election on whether statewide elections should move to ranked-choice voting. If the House bill fails, backers of the concept may try to put it on the ballot by initiative. Here’s a description from Ballotpedia on how it works:
Under ranked-choice voting, voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots. If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the next-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process is repeated until a candidate wins an outright majority.
Kotek Muddies Public Defender Bill
Kotek threw a last-inning wrench into legislation aimed at boosting the number of public defenders in Oregon. She opposed moving the agency overseeing public defense to her office, which had been proposed to eliminate potential conflicts in its current organization position in the Oregon Judicial Department. The bill she wants amended is in the Senate, so it’s an issue that may have to wait until a special session.
Retail Theft Bill Passes – SB 340
The House approved a Senate bill stiffening penalties for retail thrift, a key legislative objective of small business owners. Kotek is expected to sign the legislation.
Kotek Effort on Teaching Teachers
The Governor launched an effort to improve reading instruction in service of increasing the reading proficiency of Oregon elementary school students.
Oregon Preschool Enrollment Low
A report indicates preschool enrollment in Oregon has increased but still lags. Being among the lowest preschool enrollments in the nation may be a contributing factor in low reading proficiency test scores.
Major Vacancies in State Agencies
State officials reported 20 percent of state agency staff positions are vacant and warned a staffing crisis looms as the current contract with state employees nears its end.
Rosenblum Recuses on Democratic Donor Case
Democratic Attorney General recused herself from the investigation into questionable political contributions to the Democratic Party. Some critics said she should recused herself sooner.
Russia Bans Oregon Officials
Russia issued sanctions for high-profile figures such as former President Barack Obama. The travel sanctions list also included Kotek, Rosenblum and Congresswoman Val Hoyle, none of whom indicated they had any plans to visit Russia.
Previously, Russia sanctioned Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Congressmen Earl Blumenauer, Cliff Bentz, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici.