Tension over Oregon’s locked Capitol is taking a toll on the 2021 session

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
March 12, 2021 7:43 p.m.

Republicans are finding new ways to register their displeasure with the year-long closure of the statehouse, sometimes with disruptive results.

As Oregon’s 2021 legislative session nears the two-month mark, the ongoing closure of the state Capitol has ensured more than empty hallways in the typically teeming building. With increasing frequency, Republican objections to the closure are prompting tangible breaks in the legislative process.

In one busy Senate committee, Republican lawmakers routinely vote “no” in an ongoing protest to the statehouse closure. The unwavering dissent means that the committee can advance no legislation, no matter how sensible or unoffending, if even one Democrat is absent.

The Oregon State Capitol was boarded up in expectation of planned protests before of the presidential inauguration. The building has been closed to the general public for a year, amid worries over spread of COVID-19.

The Oregon State Capitol was boarded up in expectation of planned protests before of the presidential inauguration. The building has been closed to the general public for a year, amid worries over spread of COVID-19.

Sergio Olmos / OPB

In the House, Republicans have resumed a tactic of insisting bills be read in full prior to a final vote, a strategy they used extensively in 2020 to slow the passage of Democratic priorities. In explaining the move in a recent floor speech, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, pointedly noted diminished public involvement as a result of the Capitol closure.

“This remote session without the public in the building is grossly inadequate,” Drazan said. While she went on to applaud some virtual tools that allow far-flung residents to more easily participate, Drazan said “it’s not a substitute for actual in-person contributions from Oregonians.”

And in the Senate, where Republican lawmakers have already refused to show up once, a senator is planning to propose that senators must give up their $151 daily per diem allowance until the Capitol is opened to the general public — an idea unlikely to find support among majority Democrats who say the closure is a prudent public health measure.

“What the people of Oregon want is for this Capitol to be open and to have access to in-person hearings,” state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said on the Senate floor Thursday. “Many other states are already doing this with greater COVID problems than exist in Oregon today.”

Closed, but not inaccessible

The state Capitol locked its doors to the general public a year ago, as COVID-19′s spread throughout the state and nation were just becoming apparent. It’s been closed ever since, though elected officials, staff, and credentialed media still have access.

Controversy over the closure is not new. Over the course of three special sessions last year, Republican lawmakers repeatedly called for members of the public to be allowed in the building, a step they said could be conducted in a safe manner.

The Legislature’s leading Democrats, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, have opted for a more cautious approach. Stressing that they have consulted with infectious disease specialists, leadership has said unfettered Capitol access is too risky. For the relatively few allowed into the building, officials have created a system where lawmakers no longer meet in person for committee meetings, and they are subject to special rules when attending floor sessions.

Bathrooms have been limited to single occupants, some hallways have arrows directing one way-traffic, and elevator capacity is capped.

At the same time, lawmakers have created new ways to interact with the Legislature. This largely involves the ability to testify in hearings by computer or phone — a system that affords citizens ready access without traveling to Salem, but also regularly leads to confusion and is subject to glitches. For citizens who do show up to the Capitol, kiosks are available to allow them to testify from outside the building.

Republican lawmakers applaud the new access afforded by technology, but many have repeatedly contended it’s not enough.

The sentiment came to a head during a December special session, when state Rep. Mike Nearman, a Polk County Republican, was captured on video allowing far-right demonstrators into the Capitol. A struggle with police ensued.

Nearman has since been stripped of committee assignments, billed more than $2,700 for damage that demonstrators caused, and faces both a criminal inquiry and workplace complaint.

The lawmaker has not directly explained his actions, but in a statement in January did say: “I don’t condone violence nor participate in it. I do think that when Article IV, Section 14 of the Oregon Constitution says that the legislative proceedings shall be ‘open,’ it means open, and as anyone who has spent the last nine months staring at a screen doing virtual meetings will tell you, it’s not the same thing as being open.”

New protests emerge

While Republicans have been almost completely silent on the allegations against Nearman, they have found new ways to express their displeasure at the closed Capitol.

In the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation, three GOP lawmakers — Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer, Sen. Dallas Heard of Myrtle Creek, and Sen. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls — have routinely voted “no” on every matter before the committee.

On Wednesday, for instance, the committee took up a bill making it a misdemeanor in Oregon to display a noose as an intimidation tactic. After universally voting against amendments to the proposal they seemed to support, all three Republicans also opposed the bill moving to the Senate floor.

Linthicum told his colleagues at the time that he appreciated the amendments. “Nevertheless I will be a ‘no’ vote because of the Capitol lockdown,” he said.

Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, sits on the Senate floor at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, sits on the Senate floor at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Because Democrats hold four positions on the committee to the three held by Republicans, the bill passed on to the Senate floor. But in other circumstances, the blanket opposition could have prevented action. If even one Democrat on the committee were absent, the 3-3 deadlock would have forced the committee to hold off until another day.

Ongoing tensions over the Republican “no” votes spilled over in the committee Wednesday, prompting the chair, Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, to carve out time at the end of the hearing to allow lawmakers to speak their minds.

“I too want the building open,” said Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, who had earlier criticized the Republican protest. “However, I do realize that we are in a very unique position. The last thing I would want to do is to open up this place and have young people, seniors, people with compromised immune conditions come in here and create an avenue for a super spreader event.”

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who has earned a reputation for minutely tracking the trends of COVID-19 infection in the state, noted that Oregon had some of the lowest death and infection rates in the country. “That is not an accident,” he said.

The comments met resistance from Heard, a Republican and one of the Legislature’s most vocal advocates for an open Capitol. “It seems to be nothing but words when people in the majority say they are for mutual respect and for the people,” he said. “This has become an absolute top-down authority structure when the few begin to take responsibility for the many to the point where we decide at the top of the power system what is okay and what is not okay for the citizens … whether it’s wearing a mask or entering their own Capitol building.”

Tensions spill into chambers

Disagreement over the closure also appeared in the full Senate on Thursday. In a floor session, Democrats signaled their intent to add a rule allowing senators to be docked their $151 per diem if they walked out, denying the chamber a quorum. Such walkouts have become a hallmark in recent years, with Republicans holding super minorities in both chambers.

The proposed rule change appeared to risk setting off yet another walkout. A floor session scheduled for 11 a.m. was repeatedly delayed as Republicans met privately. Eventually, the party arrived in the Senate chamber and Knopp, the Bend Republican, immediately railed against the Democratic plan.

“If this should move forward there will be other rules changes that will be laid on the desk that will affect every Senator’s per diem,” he said.

Oregon state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Oregon state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, speaks on the floor of the Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Knopp later told OPB that one proposal he is preparing would force lawmakers to give up their per diem until the Capitol re-opens. “Those that care about the public being involved in legislation through open, in-person testimony and floor sessions not happening due to walkouts will support my proposal,” Knopp said in a text message.

State Sen. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas, also lambasted the Democratic proposal in an email statement, noting that Democrats haven’t worked from the Capitol many days during the closure.

“Is it not interesting the same Senate Democrat legislators claiming ‘no work no pay’ in the building are themselves paying themselves $151 per day when NOT working in the building?” Boquist wrote.

The drama has not been limited to the Senate. In the House on Tuesday, Republican lawmakers surprised some Democrats by refusing to waive constitutional rules that require bills be read in full before a final vote. Those rules are routinely set aside in both chambers to speed legislation along, but in recent years the minority House GOP caucus has increasingly declined to do that.

Drazan, the chamber’s Republican leader, suggested Tuesday that part of her members’ protest was not having enough input in upcoming legislation.

“Is this an inconvenience?” Drazan said in response to a remark from House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland. “I’m sorry. You don’t get to control everything.”

But the House Republican leader also made sure to bring up a longstanding gripe among members of her caucus over the Capitol closure. Increased access via computers “should in fact be something that we preserve and hold onto as progress,” Drazan said. “It is not a substitute for actual in-person contributions from Oregonians.”

Legislative leaders say they’re hoping to open the statehouse in the coming months. Since February, a “metrics evaluation advisory group” has met weekly to discuss the current pandemic numbers. The group consists of top Democrats and Republicans, with input from the Oregon Health Authority and legislative administration.

Under a plan unveiled in January, Kotek and Courtney said the building could begin reopening as early as March. But even planning for such a step won’t begin until Marion County, where the Capitol sits, is classified as having “moderate risk” for COVID-19 under the state’s current framework. The building would not actually open until the county reached a “lower risk” designation. As of this week, Marion County remains in the “high risk” category.

Marion County is also not the only consideration for lawmakers.

“Members of the public would be traveling to Marion County from all over the state, so state health officials have also recommended that we need to consider the risk levels statewide as a factor for expanding access as well,” Danny Moran, a spokesman for Kotek, said Thursday.

Even if the Capitol were to open this month, many lawmakers would be conspicuously vulnerable to COVID-19. Under the current state timeline, legislators are slated to become eligible for vaccination along with frontline workers on May 1, if they don’t otherwise qualify beforehand.

That timeline could be tweaked as more doses of vaccine become available. On Thursday, President Joe Biden called on states to open up vaccinations to all adults by May 1.