Oregon Lawmakers Start Tackling Higher-Profile Issues

Oregon Lawmakers Start Tackling Higher-Profile Issues

Despite a slow start to the legislative session, Oregon lawmakers are wasting no time tackling some of the more high-profile and controversial issues of the year. In all, lawmakers introduced 2,046 bills for this session as of today, which is nearly 40 percent more than at the same point during the 2019 session. The sheer number of measures is daunting for any session, but this session, particularly, given the daunting task of managing virtual public hearings and technology failures. Nevertheless, the legislature must address substantial issues for the session, including the state budget, redistricting, and allegations of sexual harassment in the building.

The Oregon Constitution authorizes the legislative chambers to expel a member with a two-thirds vote for disorderly behavior. Although the legislature has always had the power to remove a member for cause, there is no record of the legislature invoking it. Over the past week, the House Committee on Conduct held daily hearings to investigate allegations of sexual harassment raised against Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland) from five women spanning the past several years. Today, during a press conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus, Gov. Kate Brown (D) joined a growing list of lawmakers, union leaders, and progressive groups to call for his resignation after the hearings. In an unprecedented step, the committee unanimously approved a resolution expelling the representative from the legislature. The resolution could appear on the floor as early as Tuesday, February 9.

Meanwhile, lawmakers learned that delays at the U.S. Census Bureau for releasing the official redistricting data for states might extend past the legislature’s constitutional deadline to finalize state and congressional districts. The Oregon Constitution requires the legislature to complete a redistricting plan by July 1. If the legislature fails to finish its work, the responsibility of drawing districts falls to the Secretary of State, who must complete a redistricting plan by August 15. On Tuesday, an official with the U.S. Census Bureau informed lawmakers the official redistricting data necessary to draw new districts might not be available until July 31, at the earliest. If so, it is possible that neither the legislature nor the Secretary of State could complete the work before their constitutional deadlines. The chairs and vice-chairs of the legislature’s redistricting committees are actively urging the presiding officers to seek a preemptive ruling from the Oregon Supreme Court extending the timelines for the legislature to complete the work. If the court approves the request, the legislature could convene again over the summer to complete the redistricting process.  

The deliberations regarding the state budget are off to an expectedly slow start. The co-chairs of the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee suggested the state is looking at a $1.6 billion deficit for the two-year biennium beginning on July 1, 2021. However, it is unclear if that figure will hold throughout the session as the state economists update the revenue forecast. The legislature will receive two updated estimates for the session on February 24 and May 19, which will shape the tax and spending conversations further into the session. With that said, lawmakers are wasting no time diving into discussions on potential tax increases in the intervening time. On Wednesday, the Senate tax-writing committee began exploring a proposal to claw back state tax relief triggered by the congressional aid packages last year. With more than 160 tax measures introduced for the session, there are bound to be proposals to raise just about anyone’s eyebrows.