Oregon lawmakers are rapidly picking up the pace of their regular session as the legislature nears its first major deadline. After limiting most session activities to public hearings for the first six weeks, the legislative committees are starting to take on more serious and controversial topics as they prepare to move bills in marathon meetings in March. The legislature held notable hearings this week on proposals to reform the state’s recycling system, empower local governments and agencies to prohibit firearms in public spaces, and offer a public option through the state’s Medicaid organizations, among countless other measures. The session’s speed will only hasten as the legislature nears the March 19 deadline to schedule work sessions to move bills out of policy committees in their chamber of origin.
On Monday, Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland) announced his intention to resign from office after a U.S. Circuit Court rejected his petition to prevent the Oregon House of Representatives from expelling him. Earlier this month, the House Conduct Committee determined the representative created a hostile work environment for three women and advanced a resolution effectively removing him from office. The resignation goes into effect on Monday, March 15, which will officially initiate the process for the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to appoint his replacement. Rep. Hernandez sits on several notable committees, including those on revenue and the environment, leaving a void for the chamber’s leadership to fill.
On Wednesday, the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis presented its updated revenue forecast to a joint meeting of the legislature’s revenue committees. The state economists told the committees that tax collections are holding strong and, in fact, continuing to outperform earlier estimates, despite the pandemic economy. The economists attributed the revenue growth to the federal government’s stimulus checks, expanded unemployment insurance, and resources for businesses struggling to survive the business closures during the winter surge. In all, the economists anticipate the legislature has $800 million in additional resources to deploy. Additionally, the forecast suggests the rosy revenue outlook will likely trigger the state’s unique personal income tax “kicker” refund law, sending roughly $570 million back to personal income taxpayers.
On Thursday, Senate Republicans staged the first major act of defiance of the session by refusing to show up for a pro-forma floor session to introduce new measures. In statements issued after their absence, the Republicans attributed the boycott of the floor session to the governor’s extension of the state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic. They demanded legislation reopening schools, prioritizing senior citizens for vaccines, and focusing on the state’s economic recovery. Although the protest’s media coverage paints an image of a walkout along the lines of those from the 2019 and 2020 sessions, it is worth noting that Republicans continued to participate in committee meetings and other deliberations.
The legislature is showing no signs of slowing down as we look ahead to next week. On Monday, the House Revenue Committee has scheduled a hearing on a controversial proposal to rewrite the state’s constitutional property tax laws. Since the 1990s, Oregon has limited the rate and assessed value of properties based on historical values. These limits, long a target of the state’s public employee unions, local governments, and allied groups, are believed by some to represent an untouchable “third rail” of the state’s politics, especially since any effort to unravel them requires the approval of the voters. It is becoming clear that although this session’s rhythm is a vast departure from the before times, the enduring issues driving our political discourse are here to stay.