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Political Tensions Take Over Legislative Process

Although lawmakers are only eight weeks into their legislative session, tensions are just beginning to leave their mark on the legislative process.
Political Tensions Take Over Legislative Process

Although lawmakers are only eight weeks into their legislative session, tensions over the closure of the capitol and the virtual nature of the session are just beginning to leave their mark on the legislative process. On Monday, as the House was scheduled to start passing measures on the floor, Republicans declined to suspend a procedural rule requiring the clerk to read the entirety of every bill before its final vote. Republicans have tactically used these rule suspensions to slow the passage of Democratic priorities in past sessions. Still, the refusal from the very beginning is perhaps a sign of the slowdown awaiting lawmakers as more measures move out of committee. Democratic leadership quickly responded with a proportional response, announcing an additional floor session on Tuesday nights to work through the slog of bill readings. Until recently, the chamber only met for floor sessions on Monday and Tuesday mornings, allowing lawmakers to return home for their remaining virtual hearings and meetings throughout the week. Notably, many lawmakers travel back to their districts on Tuesday nights and the additional floor session will likely require rural lawmakers to remain in Salem one more night.

On Wednesday, the presiding officers petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court to intervene in the redistricting process and extend the legislature’s constitutional deadline to redraw voting districts to December 30. Currently, the legislature must redraw district boundaries by July 1 or the process becomes the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Due to the U.S. Census Bureau’s delays, it is unlikely that Oregon will receive its redistricting data until September 30, which is also past the Secretary of State’s constitutional deadline to redraw districts. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan asserts the legislature could use alternative population data to draw boundaries and the Court could address any inconsistencies after the release of the official data. The responsibility for redrawing districts may ultimately fall on the justices if the Court does not approve any alternative to the constitutional process.

Congress’s passage of the latest coronavirus relief legislation, called the American Rescue Plan, could add a new wrinkle to the state’s tax and fiscal deliberations. The federal legislation created a new income tax exemption for individuals receiving unemployment insurance to get ahead of many surprise tax bills for millions without work during the pandemic. Oregon automatically accepts federal tax law changes and will offer an identical exemption for the state income tax unless the legislature proactively votes to reject it. Although the state costs of the exemption are unknown at this point, the high volume of individuals receiving unemployment insurance in 2020 is sure to contribute to a substantial cost, lowering state tax collections. It is possible that this tax cut could be large enough to prevent Oregon’s unique “kicker” law from returning excess revenue to taxpayers, adding a significant degree of uncertainty for the state’s budget and tax debates.

One week from today marks the first major deadline of the 2021 legislative session—the chamber of origin scheduling deadline. If a measure is not scheduled for advancement out of its policy committee by the close of business on Friday, the bill becomes effectively dead for the session. These deadlines typically result in roughly half of a session’s bills not progressing any further, allowing the legislature to narrow its focus to the measures likely to garner enough support to cross the finish line. The deadline is perhaps more significant in this session because it presents an opportunity to reset the session and hone the focus of the remaining months to the most pressing issues. With the political forces pressing the legislature in every direction, it is unclear if that reset can become a reality. We will soon find out.