Session’s Higher Profile Issues Take Spotlight
Oregon lawmakers are already racing against the clock to meet their first major deadline of the short session. Legislative policy committees, essentially all committees except those for rules, budget, and tax, have until the end of the day on Monday to pass bills from their chamber of origin. Throughout this week, committees put themselves in overdrive, including hearings late into the evening, to complete their work to advance bills through the process. Although these deadlines and the frantic pace of activity are a custom of any session, the truncated timelines of the short session combined with the difficulties of legislating in the virtual environment leave no room for error as the session proceeds.
On Tuesday, the House Business & Labor Committee held an evening hearing on a proposal requiring agricultural businesses, including farms and nurseries, to follow the same overtime pay standards as other employers. Like much of the country, Oregon’s agricultural workers are exempt from overtime pay requirements. During the 2021 session, farmers and farmworkers tried to negotiate legislation requiring overtime pay, but the measure ultimately died and stakeholders continued their negotiations in the interim. Then, in December, a farmworkers group filed a lawsuit against the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries, asserting the state does not have the authority to exclude farmworkers from overtime and pay requirements. The litigation reignites a contentious debate in the legislature between farmers, farmworkers, and their allies over a solution to the overtime dispute that is driving much of the political rhetoric in the building.
On Thursday, the Senate Rules Committee unveiled a plan to refer campaign finance limits to voters in the fall. The plan, introduced as an amendment to SB 1526, combines proposals from good government groups, labor unions, and advocacy groups. The legislation would impose strict limits on campaign finance transactions and create a new taxpayer-funded program to pay for the expenses of certain candidate campaigns. Perhaps most controversial, however, is a proposal to allow limitless contributions from so-called “small donor committees,” which would allow some member organizations, like unions, to spend more than other political heavyweights.
Although the virtual environment has improved since the early days of these virtual sessions, some stakeholders continue to run into challenges engaging with the legislature. The legislature’s technology office sent out a building-wide notice to lawmakers saying residents serviced by certain broadband companies could not access the legislature’s website, prohibiting them from listening and engaging with the virtual committee hearings. The outage disproportionately affected rural districts, only adding to the frustrations of some over the ability of the public to participate in the session.
Unlike the long five-month session, where legislators take a break after the passing of the chamber deadline, there is no pause in the short session. After Monday’s deadline, the chambers will start reading and voting on bills on the floor so they can receive hearings and votes in the second chamber before the next deadline. Thus far, House Republicans have required the clerk to read the entirety of every bill on the floor before a vote. Without a breakthrough in chamber negotiations, these bill readings could result in very long floor sessions extending late into the evenings and weekends. It could also result in collateral damage for non-controversial measures. If these delays prevent a bill from reaching its second chamber in time for hearings and votes, it could spell its death, despite not having any opposition.
Buckle your seat belts and put on your helmets. There is a lot of session left to go.