Friends, Romans, Countrypeople, lend us your ears, for it is almost Sine Die, Latin for "Adjourned for good, not coming back, we really mean it,” at the Oregon Legislature.
And what a session it has been for politics junkies (though perhaps not for those who prefer their legislative changes to be sweeping.) The past five months or so have brought big money, big scandals, and, yes, potential for lasting changes. Let’s review.
In a year where national and international news often took center stage—global pandemic much?— most of the non-revenue bills that won approval from both chambers in Salem and made it to the desk of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown are more modest in scope, though often meaningful.
Take, for example, recently passed legislation to allow restaurants to continue to serve up to-go cocktails in a post-pandemic world—not earth-shattering stuff, but a tonic to the battered hospitality industry all the same, and one step closer to a New Orleans vibe for the entire state.
Also in this category is a bill that allows ballots postmarked up to Election Day to be counted so long as they are received within a week—no more deadline after which you have to seek out a ballot drop box. Again, not monumental in a state that’s already justly proud of its voter turnout, but a welcome change from the many states that are trying to curtail voting rights in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.
Lawmakers also finally decided to get rid of the state’s nakedly racist state song in favor of updated lyrics that don’t celebrate the trampling of Indigenous and Black people’s rights, opened the door to allow collegiate athletes to receive compensation for the bajillions of dollars their feats rake in for their schools (Hey! We recommended that one, way back when), sent a safe storage gun bill to the governor’s desk, and put the kibosh on discrimination based on hairstyles, an issue with particular resonance in the Black community, where dreadlocks, braids, beads, and other styles are sometimes deemed outside the boundaries of capricious grooming policies.
Some of the newly passed legislation will have a particular impact in the Portland metro area, including a package of policing reform laws, one of which specifies that police officers assigned to crowd control during protests must be clearly identified by name or badge number; another provision requires that all new police officer background checks must include a scan for membership in hate groups. And joint efforts by Portland and Multnomah County to create more types of housing for the homeless got a boost too, with a new law making it easier to site shelters in different neighborhoods, carried by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.
But if you’re looking for breath-taking, first in the nation types of legislation coming from Oregon, this isn’t (yet) your session (there’s still time—but not a lot of it). A bill to decriminalize sex work, Amsterdam-style, fell by the wayside, as did a proposal to extend overtime pay to farmworkers, which garnered fierce opposition from the agricultural industry. The wildly controversial climate control efforts to pass cap-and-trade legislation across all sectors that memorably derailed the entire session in 2019 didn’t even make it back to the table this year, though a scaled-back version that sets an ambitious timeline for power-producing companies to eliminate carbon dioxide producing emissions looks poised for passage. And there wasn’t much momentum to take up campaign finance reform, leaving Oregon still without set limits on campaign contributions from businesses, unions and individual donors.
This year’s legislature also continued a proud tradition of booting some of the toughest calls directly to the voters. We could see a legislatively backed ballot initiative on political contributions in 2022, along with initiatives that take aim at preventing lawmakers from walking out on the job in order to stop legislation in its tracks, and penalizing those who do so anyway.
That brings us to some of the juicier subplots this year in Salem, including the GOP walkout earlier in the session over continuing COVID-19 restrictions and subsequent efforts aimed at slowing down the process considerably, including insistences that all bills be read in full, in all their fine-print glory. It didn’t help matters that the legislature had to go fully remote more than once because of a positive COVID case among staff or elected officials, in a year when the building was already mostly closed off to the public and testimony in public hearings was delivered via computer. The disputes were (somewhat) resolved when Oregon Democrats, who far outnumber the GOP in Salem, agreed to a power-sharing arrangement for drawing up new legislative and congressional district boundaries, a concession that drew the ire of one Rep. Peter De Fazio whose perennially purple district he’d prefer not to see rejiggered.
There was also the case of legislators behaving badly—specifically Democratic Reps. Diego Hernandez, who resigned rather than face expulsion after allegations that he created a hostile workplace at the Capitol by pressuring at least three of his employees to have a romantic relationship with him, and Brad Witt, a long-serving member from Clatskanie who has lost his committee leadership role after sending a series of texts that made a female Republican colleague deeply uncomfortable. (Hernandez was replaced by Rep. Andrea Valderrama, whose appointment marked the first time that women have held the majority of seats in the Oregon House of Representatives.)
No one, though, attracted more attention than Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, who is facing an unprecedented vote to expel him from the body (barring an eleventh-hour resignation) for his role in coaching raucous right-wing protesters on how to storm the Capitol in late December, armed with pepper spray. (Incontrovertible proof of Nearman’s involvement emerged last week when OPB reported on a video of him outlining instructions on how to get into the building, even giving out his cell phone number, with a wink and a nudge.) This week, all 22 other members of his caucus signed a letter calling on him to resign from his post.
(One silver lining of all this unfortunate behavior: Legislative staffers became the first in the country to form a union, to give them more of a say in workplace environments and safety, among other issues.)
So, what remains to be accomplished in Salem? It comes down, as it always, invariably does, to money. And this year—in a surprising turn of events—the state’s awash in it, thanks to far higher than expected tax revenues and a bonanza of federal COVID relief spending. All that money will trigger a new “kicker”—the only in Oregon kickback to taxpayers that comes when revenues exceed projections by more than 2 percent. This year, the kicker is going full Rockette, and returning $1.4 billion to residents. If you make the state median income, which is somewhere around $37,500 a year, you’re due $312. (Phil Knight and the rest of the 1 percent, though? They’re getting more than $12,000.
Meanwhile, the state’s projected budget for the year stands at about $28 billion, with the biggest pieces of the pie set aside for schools, public safety and social services, plus special one-time appropriations for wildfire relief, mental health supports and affordable housing. True Salem aficionados will know to watch for the “Christmas tree” bill, coming later this month, which includes final bits and bobs of funds earmarked for pet programs and priorities of individual legislators.