The Oregon Legislature reached the halfway point of its session this week with the completion of the chamber of origin deadline. The deadline marks the end of the road for more than 1,000 measures and a narrowing focus for lawmakers as we enter the second half of the session.
After the House gridlocked for more than a month over the constitutional requirement to read bills in their entirety before final passage, the parties struck an accord that breaks through the logjam that brought the floor to a painfully slow speed. The deal, announced on Wednesday night, provides a power-sharing structure in the House for redrawing voting districts, one of the most consequential issues before the legislature this year. The agreement is a significant concession for Democrats, given their supermajority control of the legislature and holding all statewide elected offices, but also a gamble for Republicans. The ability to influence the process and keep the drawing of political boundaries in the legislature's control is a substantial victory for Republicans. However, if the parties gridlock over the maps, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan (D) would complete the process—an outcome most Republicans wish to avoid.
The agreement ending the gridlock over bill readings could dramatically shape the remaining months of the session. Until now, the legislature has been without a single issue driving the politics of the session, which is unusual considering that past sessions were dominated by major political negotiations over environmental, tax, and health care policy. The breakthrough over the bill readings creates something missing in the legislature this session—a motivation for the parties to work together and negotiate a way through the rest of the session.
Although the legislature has thus far avoided the walkouts that plagued past sessions, the tensions within and amongst the parties are simmering. In the Senate, Republicans are trying to balance the interests of their constituents and caucus members over the threat of a walkout. As we learned in the last two sessions, walkouts can serve as either a machete or a scalpel. The threat of a walkout alone, if deployed correctly, has the potential to build leverage for the minority party to influence the direction of the session, but it also comes with significant risks and potential collateral damage if the negotiations fail. For some Republicans, however, the threat alone is not enough and they feel as if they are betraying their constituents for not leaving the session over controversial legislation. While these tensions have primarily stayed below the fray, that seems to be changing. On Thursday, Sen. Art Robinson (R-Cave Junction) officially changed his caucus affiliation to Independent, signaling that he and possibly others are no longer working in conjunction with the Senate Republican caucus over these disputes.
Looking ahead, the House and Senate both plan to spend the next several weeks working through bills passed out of the policy committees. Although the House began moving at an impressive speed after reaching the agreement over bill readings, it will still take some time to work through the backlog of bills rushed out of committee for the chamber of origin deadline. Additionally, the budget subcommittees are starting to meet regularly to craft the budgets for state agencies and begin addressing policies requiring appropriations. The budget-writers will also need to determine how to spend roughly $780 million in one-time federal money from the American Rescue Plan, which perhaps may function as yet another bargaining chip as the parties negotiate their way through the session.