With the pageantry and pleasantries of Monday January 9th now over, Oregon’s new governor and legislative leaders face six months of partisan politics to hammer out a new state budget and up or down votes on progressive policy plans.
Gov. Tina Kotek on Tuesday signed three executive orders she outlined during her inauguration speech the day before. Two are largely symbolic — declaring a homeless emergency and ordering state agencies to make the issue a top priority. The third would fast-track new housing to take pressure off the lack of homes for sale and the high price of rental units.
After organizational sessions Monday, the Legislature adjourned until Tuesday, Jan. 17. That’s when the clock starts on the constitutionally mandated 160-day session that must end by June 25.
New faces in new places
After a decade of stability — critics would say stagnation — at the top of state government, 2023 brings a massive turnover in nearly every part of government. Kotek takes over from Kate Brown, who had served since 2015, when, as secretary of state, she replaced Gov. John Kitzhaber, who resigned over an influence-peddling scandal. The Oregon Supreme Court is now led by Chief Justice Meagan Flynn, who was named to the job by Brown effective Jan. 1 after then-Chief Justice Martha Walters retired.
November’s election left Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, but pushed their numbers under the three-fifth mark that for the past four years had allowed passage of tax and other financial legislations without needing any Republican votes. The 35-25 split in the House means at least two Republican votes are needed to pass financial bills. Democrats hold 17 seats in the Senate and need at least one vote from the 12 Republicans and one Independent to pass similar legislation.
The Senate on Monday selected Democrat Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego as the first new Senate President since 2003. In the House, Dan Rayfield of Corvallis was again chosen as speaker, a job he held part of last year after Kotek stepped down from the job she had held for a decade and resigned to run for governor.
The Republican minority leadership has changed more often in recent years. Sen. Tim Knopp, the veteran lawmaker from Bend, returns as GOP leader. House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, returns to the job she held after then-Republican leader Christine Drazan resigned to make a strong but unsuccessful bid for governor.
Bipartisan hopes, partisan realities
Rayfield said on Monday that he hoped the partisan wars of the past few sessions, marked by walkouts by Republicans in 2019 and 2020, wouldn’t carry over to the 2023 session. But he said the goal is aspirational but difficult on a practical level.
“I don’t want to suggest this session is going to be unicorns jumping over rainbows,” he said.
House members received orange hard hats with their names on them from new House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis. The Capitol is undergoing a major seismic and interior renovation that will last until January 2025.
Wagner also expressed optimism for a more cooperative Senate atmosphere. The usually more sedate Senate was rocked in recent sessions by Republican walkouts to block bills by denying the required quorum to do any business.
Adding to the hostile atmosphere was a nasty split among Republicans in 2021 over a decision by then-Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, to not walk out over gun safety legislation. Republicans voted against the bill, but it passed on a mostly party-line vote. The bill was sent to voters as a referral for the 2022 ballot as Measure 114. Voters narrowly approved of the change, but the reforms have been put on hold by court injunctions.
In his first speech to senators, Wagner said he was aware of the big change in the room after Courtney’s departure. He referenced President Abraham Lincoln in saying reaching a true unity amid contentious views was a process, not a destination.
“We make not the perfect union, but a perfect union,” Wagner said.
Democrat’s choice of Wagner had been publicly blasted by Knopp earlier in the month.
“Senator Wagner has shown he is untrustworthy, deeply partisan, and doesn’t have the necessary skills to run the Senate in a bipartisan fashion,” Knopp said. “There are no votes in the Senate Republican caucus for Senator Wagner.”
On Monday, the political tone was turned down to a low simmer. Knopp and his caucus nominated Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Salem, for senate president. The move sidestepped GOP senators having to start the session by simply voting “no” on Wagner’s nomination and eventual approval to lead the chamber. Wagner was elected on a 17-12 vote.
The Senate currently has one vacancy with the recent resignation of Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg. County commissioners from Heard’s district will select a Republican replacement, with Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, ranked as the top choice by district GOP precinct captains.
Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, was chosen as the Senate President Pro Tempore to lead the chamber when Wagner is not available.
Blizzard of bills
The Oregon Legislative Information Services website — known by the acronym “OLIS,” had been largely dormant since autumn. On Sunday, the list of bills suddenly was populated with more than 2,000 proposed pieces of legislation. No information was attached until Monday, when the blizzard of bills that the Legislature will consider was filled with details.
In a rapid-fire reality-check of things to come next week, the two chambers began reading the titles of the gusher of proposed laws and resolutions that were sent through the official floodgates on Monday. The vast majority of bills will never make it through both chambers and onto the desk of Gov. Kotek. On top of the pile of House and Senate ideas on paper is the necessity to pass a balanced two-year state budget.
Legislation is introduced and assigned by the presiding officer of each chamber to a committee. It can be considered, amended and approved. More often, the legislations — especially bills from the minority party (currently Republicans in both chambers) is left to languish and expire.
With a few exceptions, bills that have not had a hearing and scheduled for a committee vote by March 17 are dead for the session. There are several more deadlines along the way that cull scores of bills.
Under the Oregon Constitution, the Legislature must adjourn no later than June 25.
Serious stuff with a side of potatoes
As the bills being read flew by, the gist of the legislation in the titles could be made out. There were hot-button issues such as guns, housing, homeless, environmental controls, taxes and health care.
But the list also included the usual crop of resolutions and bills that deal with less serious matters but are perennial legislative items meant to buttress the state’s reputation or elevate one of its aspects or products into higher status.
Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, introduced Senate Concurrent Resolution 3, his latest attempt to get the Legislature and governor to have the potato named Oregon’s official vegetable. Hansell’s district includes much of the potato crop in Oregon. He made a similar effort in 2021.
Hansell at that time said $200 million dollars worth of potatoes, accounting for 25 percent 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.
The bill stalled as the legislature hit the wall of the mandatory conclusion of the session in late June before taking up the issue.
Rep. Kevin Mannix, R-Salem, is making up for the lost time of a more than a decade away from the Legislature. His 38 pre-filed bills include allowing landlords to terminate month-to-month rentals for no cause.
Mannix is on his third stint as a “House freshman.” Elected in 1988 as a Dem, he returned in 1998 as GOP, and reprises GOP after 2022 win. In between were runs for attorney general, governor and as the author of several major ballot initiatives.