2021 Oregon Legislature halfway point: Policies take a backseat to the politics

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
April 16, 2021 1 p.m.

Oregon politicians love to talk about “the Oregon way.”

It’s meant to convey the feeling that in Oregon, politicians do things differently. They take the best ideas, whether they come from a Republican or a Democrat. They govern in a respectful, inclusive manner.


But these days, “the Oregon way” looks a lot more like the Washington, D.C., way.

Last week, the 2021 legislative session reached its halfway point. The hope that the unprecedented crises facing the state — homes ravaged by wildfires, people dying of COVID-19, a racial reckoning movement underway — would inspire political unity has all but died.

Instead, the session kicked off with talk of a criminal investigation into Rep. Mike Nearman, a Polk County Republican who let violent demonstrators gain access to the Oregon State Capitol. It pivoted quickly to whether Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, would become the first lawmaker to be expelled from the body after facing harassment allegations.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, addresses the state Senate during a special session called to address police reform and coronavirus concerns, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, addresses the state Senate during a special session called to address police reform and coronavirus concerns, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

Pool photo by Brian Hayes / Statesman Journal

And although a deal struck Wednesday appears to have at least temporarily halted the oppositional tactics that dominated the first half of the session, yet another new precedent was set. For weeks, House Republicans forced nearly every single bill to be read word-by-word. The backlog of bills became so large, the House was preparing to meet for 10 hour days and scrap committee hearings in order to make a dent in the list. Instead, Democrats ceded their advantage in the redistricting process — which determines the state’s political districts for the next 10 years — in exchange for Republicans agreeing to stop blocking bills.

In the Senate, Republicans staged a one-day boycott of the session early on. More recently, Republican senators received death threats because they showed up and voted against a controversial gun bill. Constituents who threatened them wanted them to avoid a vote altogether by staging another walkout. Other Republicans have been protesting the session by either voting no on every single bill, no matter the topic, or skipping the floor session in order to avoid actually voting, including on a measure to make displaying a noose a crime.

In other words, at a time when lawmakers are crafting a $28 billion budget and figuring out how to keep Oregonians housed and healthy, relationships in the state Legislature remain frayed to the point where the actual policies have so far taken a backseat to the politics.

Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, the state’s longest serving state lawmaker, remembers the days where “you could fight like crazy and at night have a drink together.”

“Those days are all gone,” he said.

Breakthrough in the House

After a Republican walkout derailed the 2020 legislative session, House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner remembered thinking, “How are we going to come back from this?”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Her hope was it would inspire unity among the two parties. The way that national crises, such as September 11, used to prompt people to set aside their political differences temporarily.

But it was clear when the 2021 Legislature convened, the acrimony had not dissipated.

Smith Warner noted the large majority of bills that have passed the House this session have done so with large bipartisan support. But those bills have come at the painful cost of time, as lawmakers sat around paying attention to other things or holding informal discussions while House clerks, and later a computer, read legislation in full for hours.

Despite the gridlock, the House has managed to pass several of their housing priority bills. They’ve moved to extend the state’s eviction moratorium, expedite the siting of emergency shelters and reduce a person’s property taxes if they lost their home in a wildfire. They approved legislation to convert hotels and motels into long-term affordable housing and voted to make Juneteenth a state holiday.

Oregon State Police clear protesters from the state Capitol building grounds on Sunday, March 28, 2021.

Oregon State Police clear protesters from the state Capitol building grounds on Sunday, March 28, 2021.

Sergio Olmos

“It’s ridiculous. The idea that we have to read (nearly) every single one of those and the votes are (often) unanimous, it’s so clearly self-serving gamesmanship,” Smith Warner said Tuesday.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said on the floor in early March that Republicans weren’t in Salem to “ease the passage of someone else’s agenda” that they believe harms the state long-term.

For a while, however, it was unclear what exactly Republicans wanted. Drazan had called on Democrats to open the Capitol to the public, kill deeply controversial legislation and move only bills with bipartisan support, but Democrats still felt the demands were vague and hard to negotiate.

“Besides just slowing down the whole process, I can’t figure out what they are trying to accomplish,” Smith Warner said on Tuesday.

But late Wednesday night, a deal emerged: Democrats agreed to share power on the process of redrawing the state’s political districts in exchange for Republicans to stop blocking bills. The decision will shift the dynamics on one of the more consequential actions lawmakers will tackle this year.

It was yet another example that the slow-down tactics — from walkouts to bill readings — effectively slowed the Democratic agenda down, despite the party having supermajorities in both chambers.

One day at a time in the Senate

Earlier this week, Sen. Courtney, D-Salem, wandered up to Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod’s office in the state Capitol.


Courtney bought tulips from the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival in Woodburn and had them placed on all the Senators’ desks this week. He started off the conversation by giving Girod a hard time for not thanking him for the gesture.

The two joked for a bit.

The conversation moved to the budget.

“Tell me what you need in the budget?” Courtney said to Girod. “In order to get your (Santiam) Canyon back.”

Girod, of Stayton, lost his home in the wildfires last fall. He and his wife lost their pets, too. They nearly lost their lives. Girod’s priority this session has been focused on wildfire recovery efforts.

Like the House, the Senate has managed to pass measures meant to provide relief for homeowners impacted by the wildfires. That includes several bills that make up the state’s budget rebalance package, and will funnel $5.2 million to communities devastated by the fires. They also voted overwhelmingly to approve a measure this week to help renters impacted by the coronavirus; Senate Bill 282A would extend the time period renters have to repay rent in an effort to avoid an eviction crisis in the coming months.

Like Courtney, Girod has served in the Capitol for years.

“We’re friends, but that doesn’t mean we agree … He and I don’t agree on hardly anything,” Girod said of Courtney.

One rare piece of common ground: Both politicians say this session is unlike any other.

Courtney said he’s never had to spend so much of his time simply trying to keep the Legislature moving. Each day, he asks his staff to scan the list of bills up for a floor vote in an effort to anticipate any problems. He’s constantly trying to gauge the tension level in the building.

“I have to check all those details and the minutiae … because the slightest mistake could require this place to melt down and go to pieces,” Courtney said.

Courtney wasn’t optimistic that things would return to what was once considered normal.

Bill readings, walkouts, delay tactics, he said, those “may be with us forever.”

Girod, who was part of the 2019 Republican walkout over a climate change bill, is battling both the Democrats and divisions within his own caucus.

“I don’t regret walking out (in 2019) because cap-and-trade was such a catastrophically bad bill that it impacted everyone … I was willing to lose my seat over it. I would have done anything to make sure that got killed,” Girod said. “But I do regret the expectation now that any time we have a bad bill a walkout is the answer to that.”

For Senate Republicans, an example of a bad bill surfaced recently in Senate Bill 554. One of several contentious gun bills introduced by Democrats this session, the proposal would outlaw possession of guns within the Capitol and other state buildings. State law currently allows people with a concealed handgun license to keep firearms on their person in most public buildings. The bill also would allow local governments to set their own gun bans.

Girod argued against the bill as strenuously as any lawmaker, even vowing at one point to continue carrying a firearm in the Capitol even if the law passed. But he received death threats for just taking the vote on the bill, and is now the target of a recall campaign. Republicans within Girod’s own caucus wanted to walk out.

There are some people, Girod said, who now want Republicans to “walk out and bring the state government down” every time there is a disagreement.

“I don’t think it’s a viable option. It’s sad things have become so polarized … I share the frustration they have, I just don’t share the solution,” Girod said, adding he still believes in trying to “change public opinion.”

“We only lost the gun bill by one bloody vote, so it seems to me that trying to talk other Democrats into understanding why restrictions on guns or why Senate Bill 554 was just a terrible bill maybe should have been where you placed your emphasis,” Girod said, referring to the members of his Republican caucus who agreed with the idea of walking out over the gun bill.

Looking ahead

With Wednesday’s deal, there is hope the acrimony that has marked the 2021 session could soften.

That’s good news for an ambitious slate of policy proposals Democrats hope to pass this year.

The Oregon Legislature is working on a sweeping set of bills that aim to improve police accountability. There is still a slate of housing proposals Democrats hope to get through both chambers. And lawmakers continue to discuss changes to the state’s criminal justice system, including dismantling many of the mandatory minimum sentences voters approved under 1994′s Ballot Measure 11.

And of course, the biggest to-do item lawmakers must accomplish is passing a new two-year budget to plot out state spending from July 2021 through June 2023.

The budget outlook for the state is rather optimistic, thanks to cash from the federal $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Lawmakers are hoping to increase funding for K-12 schools, fully fund higher education, address needs brought on by COVID-19 and avoid the budget cuts they initially feared.

Meanwhile, the state Capitol remains closed to the public due to the pandemic, despite Republican objections.

“One day at a time,” Sen. Courtney said. “We got through February. We got through March and I hope we can get through the latter part of June without destroying ourselves or the institution.”

Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.


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