The 2019 Oregon Legislative Assembly did something hardly any, if any at all, of its predecessors did: It become famous for not meeting.
That’s too bad, in some ways, because this year’s session was one of Oregon’s most remarkable for what it actually did. The great interregnum at the end, the period when the Senate could not meet for lack of quorum because of the walkout of its Republican members, was only the holiday-season fireworks wrapping up a lot of other noteworthy activity that probably got far less attention across most of the state.
That legislative Republicans would have such an impact - especially since walkouts of this kind are not unprecedented, and have been used by both parties - would not have seemed especially likely as the session began. This was the first session in a long time, after all, when Democrats held supermajorities in both chambers, giving them the ability to pass almost anything, provided they could assemble a quorum - enough members on the floor to hold a valid vote. Since there were just enough Republicans in the Senate to keep a quorum from materializing, if they all departed, that counts as the last desperate maneuver they could take to stop something they really, really opposed.
That something turned out to be the “cap and trade” climate change measure, though Democratic Senate leaders said they didn’t have enough votes to pass it anyway. My speculation in this space at the session’s beginning was that the measure, which has been proposed and failed in several sessions, “will be back. A planned ‘cap and invest’ bill has been in development for weeks, and may be one of the hottest debate topics early in the session.” I was half-right; it became a bitter controversy at the session’s end, when Republicans sought to block it with their flight. That event in turn became so bitter that Senator Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, made a series of statements intemperate enough that disciplinary action was being considered against him as the session ended.
The Republicans returned barely in time to allow for important votes on budget and other matters; it made for a rushed close the session, as the Senate voted on 105 bills in the last full day. But don’t be surprised if there’s not a move sometime soon for Oregon to join other state legislatures that require only a simple majority of the members to be present to cast votes; that would require a constitutional amendment. (It might help clarify for some people an Oregon legislative oddity: a “quorum” requires two thirds of a chamber, but “supermajority” only two thirds; most people in most places might reverse those numbers.) In this case, barely a third of one half of the legislature held the state and its budget hostage, a situation many people may not want to see repeated.
For all the attention on that, quite a bit else substantive did happen, a lot of it in the first half of the session. Back in January I also speculated that Democrats who now had solid control of the legislature would use it to pass a wish list of measures, and with a few exceptions - cap and trade being a big one, gun safety measures being another - that happened. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick said the assembly passed a string of Democratic “holy grail items,” a reasonable description.
A massive increase in the budget for public schools was passed, less than some advocates wanted but more than many had expected. A bill providing for more expansive paid family leave was approved. So was a series of restrictions on many landlords in the area of rent increases and evictions; changes in rules to allow for denser - meaning in many cases, more affordable - housing cleared as well. Regulation of oil and diesel usage, and motor vehicle disassembly, roared through near session’s end, only a few in a long string of environmental measures that did pass. Democrats pushed through pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots, and drivers licenes for undocumented immigrants.
The legislature, including leading Democrats, had been reluctant for years to pass substantial limitations on campaign contributions, and a state constitutional amendment would be needed to make it stick. Such an amendment, allowing for the first time in many years some limits on that spending, will go to the voters next November. Portland attorney Jason Kafoury, a long-time activist in the area, said the proposal had seemed dead at one point but then pushed through quickly, “an amazing accomplishment. It’s the first time the Legislature has done anything on campaign finance reform in my lifetime.”
Legislators also sent to the voters a proposal to increase cigarette taxes to roughly match the higher levels in Washington and California.
The session was notable for odds and ends, too, including a couple that would trigger into action depending on what happens elsewhere around the country. One would set Oregon on permanent daylight savings time, if the federal government approves (though how people near the border areas around Oregon might feel about that is less clear). Another would direct Oregon’s electoral college votes to whatever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote (though that would take effect only if enough states to create an electoral majority also signed on).
Some legislative sessions come and go with few ripples in the pond, little recollection in emotion or substance that they had been there.
This was not one of those.
(This article first appreared in the News Register, McMinnville, Oregon.)