Well, That Was A Week!
This last week was perhaps the most eventful week in Oregon legislative politics in recent memory. The state's second-highest official announced her resignation amid a scandal over her moonlighting as a private consultant for a business in an industry her office was actively auditing. The House held long and emotional floor sessions on two social policy measures. And lastly and, perhaps, most consequentially, Senate Republicans and Independent walked away from the legislature to deny the chamber the quorum necessary to conduct its daily business. After weeks of the partisans working well together, the party may be over.
Secretary of State Shemia Fagan Announces Resignation
Last week, Willamette Week and other news organizations began reporting on revelations Secretary of State Shemia Fagan was moonlighting as a private consultant for a politically active cannabis retail chain. The company, La Mota, is embroiled in controversies over state and federal tax liens and more than 30 lawsuits from workers, vendors, and testing labs. Fagan spent the weekend and much of the early part of the week trying to dig herself out of controversy, but the news media, politicos, and the public dug in for more.
On Monday, Fagan held a press conference to explain the details of her private contract with the company, disclosing she was paid a monthly retainer of $10,000 and was eligible for $30,000 in bonuses to help the owners secure new dispensary contracts in other states. She assertively told reporters the work was not connected to Oregon but connected with public officials in other states she knew through her own service.
On Tuesday, The Oregonian revealed Fagan had conveyed comments from the chain's owners to state auditors, whom she oversees, for an audit they were conducting over issues in the state's legal marijuana regulatory program. Later that morning, The Oregonian Editorial Board issued a stark call for Fagan to resign immediately and allow someone else to begin the process of restoring faith and transparency in the state's second-highest office. Within hours, Fagan announced her resignation, effective Monday, May 8. Fagan's resignation marks a rapid fall from grace for a young politician many Democrats, especially those with progressive leanings, believed to have a bright future in higher office.
Now, with the state without someone in its second highest post, Gov. Tina Kotek (D) begins the process of appointing a successor. While the governor has not said whether she will appoint someone to serve in a "placeholder" capacity or someone seeking to do the job in the long run, the political community is chattering about possible replacements. The rumor mill is spurning with very prominent names, including State Treasurer Tobias Read (D), Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber (D-Beaverton), and even former Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem). If the process follows previous appointments, the governor is likely to wait several weeks before making any announcements, perhaps even after the legislature adjourns its session.
John Horvick, Senior Vice President of the opinion research firm DHM Research, aptly noted this week that Oregon will have had seven secretaries of state since 2015, which is certainly uncommon. Additionally, the role has been filled by an acting secretary more than someone elected by the voters in that same time.
House Advances Social Policy Bills
While Fagan's scandal and resignation announcement sent shockwaves through the political community, it was by no means the only story of the week. On Monday and Tuesday, the House spent long days on the floor debating bills expanding protections for abortion and gender-affirming care and strengthening the state's gun control laws. The abortion and gender-affirming care bill featured strong emotions from both sides. Democrats framed the proposal as an important privacy protection for patients in the age of the changing federal abortion landscape. Meanwhile, Republicans criticized the measure as going too far and violating parental rights over their children.
Throughout the floor sessions, Republicans introduced a new procedural tactic to protest against Democratic leadership. In 1979, Oregon enacted a law requiring the legislature to craft bill summaries in a way that someone with the reading comprehension of an eighth grader could understand, using something called the Flesch readability test. Republicans complain the controversial social policy bills and many other proposals this session are written in a way that is too complicated to meet the requirement and, thus, illegal. The House Speaker, backed by the clerk and state lawyers, dismissed the claims of illegality and moved the proceedings forward.
Senate Republicans & Independent Stage Walkout
Since the session's early days, it became obvious those social policy measures would easily pass through the House. The Senate, however, was thought to be a different fight. Throughout this session, Senate Republicans have required the chamber to read the entirety of a bill before its final passage and regularly make parliamentary motions intended to slow down the chamber's activity almost to a halt. On Wednesday, however, it did stop completely.
To speed up the legislative process for the social policy bills, Democrats referred the measures to the Ways & Means Committee. Since that committee is a joint committee, the bills get to bypass the traditional route of a policy committee hearing and vote in the second chamber, sending the bill directly to the Senate President's desk for reading and a vote. On Wednesday, the chamber was set to advance the bill for consideration on Thursday. Republicans and an Independent refused to attend the floor session, denying the quorum necessary to conduct business. As of Friday, we are now on the third day of the walkout and the Senate is scheduled to meet Saturday and Sunday. Time will only tell if Republicans and the Independent return.
Speculation over a walkout has been brewing for at least a month, with several Republicans suggesting a willingness to part ways with the session to prevent bills they see as problematic from becoming law. In 2020, Republicans walked out of the session over cap-and-trade legislation which ultimately killed all but three bills introduced that year. The circumstances for a walkout are more challenging than those days. In November, Oregonians approved Measure 113, which amended the state constitution to prohibit any legislator with more than 10 unexcused absences from seeking reelection. In other words, if legislators walk and miss more than 10 days, the walkout may mark the end of their tenure in the chamber.
Oregon's public employee unions, who sponsored the constitutional amendment, believed the policy would effectively end the practice of walking out and allow Democrats to advance their agenda. That might not play out as intended. Several Republican senators have already indicated an interest in retiring and some are skeptical they could win reelection after the legislature's recent redistricting. Either way, the course of the session seems to hinge on if and when the current walkout ends.
Dead Bills Can Always Come Back To Life
It is common for legislative committees to schedule "courtesy" hearings on bills that did not survive the chamber of origin deadline. It is often a way for lawmakers to promote their ideas without the politics of maneuvering a policy out of committee and counting votes on the floor.
On Tuesday, that was the plan for a measure granting people experiencing homelessness the right to sleep in public places and compensation if they are denied that right. News media, including Fox News and CNN, published stories suggesting the bill was moving through the process. Testimony submitted to the committee counted in the thousands without a single submission supporting the bill.
While we often say a bill is "dead" after the chamber of origin deadline, it's a turn of phrase. Nothing in the legislature dies until the final gavels fall because leadership or the chambers can move to resurrect any bill. It is extremely rare, especially with the parties struggling to play well together, and the public hearing became too much. Ultimately, Democratic leadership canceled the hearing, pronouncing the bill certainly almost dead.
Second Chamber of Origin Scheduling Deadline
And on that note, the legislature is heading into its second chamber deadline, which will mark the effective death of many more bills. If a measure is not scheduled for a work session in its second chamber policy committee (i.e., those other than rules, budget, tax, and most joint committees) by close of business today, the bill will be considered dead for the remainder of the session. Considering the current walkout and tensions in the building, it remains unclear whether other forces at play could kill even more bills than the second chamber deadline. We will find out soon enough.
Listen to the Gettin' SALTY Podcast
We joined Greenberg Traurig's new podcast as a special guest to discuss Oregon's legislative session as well as a measure addressing the labyrinth of new and complicated local taxes in the Portland area. Currently, a small business owner in Portland must navigate seven different income taxes between city, county, regional, state, and federal governments — each using its own set of rules for defining income. If you thought your taxes were a bear, just wait until you hear about the struggles of area taxpayers.
What We're Reading This Week
- Gov. Kotek ordered the Oregon Department of Transportation to delay any new tolling requirements for highway projects until at least January 2026, marking a win for some area lawmakers seeking to require the pause in statute.
- The Los Angeles Times published its first of a series of articles exploring how Oregon's technology boom and serene landscapes fundamentally changed the state's political climate.
- The City of Portland is proposing a new tax on homes and businesses to help finance road maintenance and upgrades. The proposal resembles a similar funding mechanism from 2014 that ultimately failed.
- After more than 70 years of prohibiting drivers from pumping their own gas, Oregon might finally let people choose at the pump.
- The Willamette Week obtained email records showing the degree to which Shemia Fagan allowed her private employer to craft the scope of an audit over the employer's regulator.
- On May 16, Oregonians will cast their ballots in the spring special election. Portlanders will decide whether their country should impose a second capital gains tax, which is dividing some local leaders.
- Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Politics Now" latest podcast episode discusses Shemia Fagan becoming a rising star of liberal politics before her downfall.