4 min read

Closing the Book on Oregon’s Short, Chaotic Session

Defying the conventional wisdom, politicians set aside the campaign season and, instead, decided to govern.

The Takeaway

Late last night, Oregon lawmakers adjourned their short, 35-day session after working through their most expansive workload since voters approved annual sessions in 2010. In previous short sessions, legislators would tussle over the nature of the session and the scope of issues coming up. Democrats would introduce major policy initiatives, arguing they were pressing problems facing the state. Meanwhile, Republicans would criticize those initiatives as too ambitious for the time constraints of the short session and not affording the due diligence they deserved. These conditions often manifested the horse race of the session, leading to stall tactics and threats of walkouts from the minority. Defying the conventional wisdom, politicians set aside the campaign season and, instead, decided to govern.

One of the “third rails” of Oregon politics is campaign finance reform. Oregon is one of the few states allowing unlimited contributions from individuals and entities, which good governance groups have targeted for years but failed to gain any real momentum in the legislature. Every session, lawmakers and activists would introduce contribution limits that would falter against the rush of lobbying from institutional players. However, with the threat of multiple ballot measures and Oregon voters seeming to have an appetite to limit money in politics, political leadership asked those players to piece together reforms they could accept. Despite all the barriers, including time, the legislature found a solution business, labor, and good governance groups could get behind, calling a halt to the ballot initiatives so long as the governor signs the reforms into law. Notably, the changes enacted by the legislature this week do not go into effect until after the 2026 election cycle, so there is time to grow into this new world.

While the eleventh-hour agreement on campaign finance reform was the biggest issue of the week, it is arguably not the most significant issue of the session. That title is reserved for the legislature’s efforts to reform Oregon’s drug decriminalization law, otherwise known as Measure 110. In 2020, Oregonians approved a ballot measure decriminalizing personal possession of most hard drugs and redirecting marijuana tax revenues toward drug treatment. Since voters approved that measure, attitudes towards that decision have sourced, setting up a situation where advocacy groups were seeking to place a measure on the ballot asking voters to rethink at least parts of the decriminalization policy. Considering voter angst towards the drug crisis, the stakes were high for the legislature to tackle drug reforms.

Republicans walked into the session calling for strict recriminalization, introducing a measure that, more or less, followed the policy in the ballot measure. Democrats, knowing full well their members in contested seats would face difficult reelection bids if the legislature did nothing on drug reforms, prioritized a legislative effort to revisit penalties for possession. The parties could not have been further apart on their solutions to addressing Oregon’s experiment with drug decriminalization; nevertheless, they worked together to find a bipartisan solution encouraging users to seek treatment before facing criminal penalties. The legislature’s ability to find a compromise on drug reform is perhaps a quintessential moment in modern Oregon legislative history. Amid the hyper-partisan political environment, the parties set aside their differences and political rhetoric to enact real reforms.

Although the legislature’s efforts to reform Oregon’s drug decriminalization law were a major policy narrative of the session, it also marks a departure in how we look at the politics of the short session—at least for this election cycle. Only a few weeks ago, Oregonians’ frustrations with rampant drug use and the state’s fentanyl crisis opened the door for Republicans to localize their campaigns in the next election cycle and, perhaps, divert some of the attention away from Trump in a solidly blue state. Instead of stalling the drug measure, Republicans embraced a unifying policy with Democrats. Years ago, we would refer to such political selflessness as the “Oregon way,” but electing to govern over politicking may be the session’s biggest gamble. Voters say they are tired of partisan politics, but are they willing to reward politicians opting to govern? We will know in due time.

The session lacked the gridlock and threats of a walkout that became a hallmark of recent sessions. Democrats avoided measures on abortion, climate, and gun control, which historically triggered the stall tactics that slowed down sessions heading into their final days. Without those threats, Republicans lacked the leverage to insist on a “kill list” to break through the gridlock and speed through the session, leaving bills to survive on their own merits or die a procedural death in the sprint to the finish line. Only time will tell if this is a momentary ceasefire in the legislature's political warfare or a fundamental change in how it operates.

For all intents and purposes, the election cycle began months ago, but the first major milestone of the campaign season is just around the corner. On Tuesday, March 12, Oregon’s Secretary of State will close the window for candidates to file for the May primary, setting the battle lines that will consume the state’s political world for the coming weeks and months. There are high-stakes campaigns in both chambers of the legislature; however, the focus is on the balance of power in the House of Representatives and whether Republicans can prevent the return of a Democratic supermajority. Again, the gamble from this session to govern instead of politick sets the stage for a high stakes campaign season where everything is on the line.

What We're Reading This Week

On This Page

Get these updates in your inbox.

Join our growing list of businesses, journalists, and political professionals receiving our newsletter.

No spam. Weekly during legislative sessions. Unsubscribe any time.