With a deadline to approve new political maps fast approaching, Oregon lawmakers will convene in Salem on Sept. 20 to try to find agreement on new legislative and congressional districts. Gov. Kate Brown on Friday made official what lawmakers have been planning on for months, calling a special session and requesting that lawmakers work “expeditiously” to pass a redistricting plan.
What’s not yet clear: Whether the public will be invited to attend.
With COVID-19 surging in the state, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney elected last month to eliminate planned in-person hearings where members of the public could comment on proposed political maps. Instead, those hearings have been held virtually — like nearly every legislative hearing since the pandemic took root in 2020.
But the state Capitol is currently open to visitors.
After being closed since March 2020, the statehouse reopened July 12, when Brown had already eased statewide restrictions. Courtney and Kotek had made no announcement as of Friday afternoon that they’d seek to re-shutter the building and implement the distancing measures they’ve employed at other recent sessions.
The timing of the special session comes during an interesting time at the Capitol in Salem. Lawmakers have been forced to move out of their offices because of ongoing construction, limiting the places they’ll be able to spend time in the building while not on the floor.
And the session is set to occur days before a new law banning firearm possession in the Capitol is set to take effect. That raises the specter that members of the public could openly carry weapons in the building during the politically charged debate over how to draw new districts — a possibility that some lawmakers would object to, in light of an incursion by far-right protesters in December.
Lawmakers have until Sept. 27 to pass a new plan for redrawing the state’s 90 legislative districts and six congressional districts, but currently there is little sign the two parties can find agreement. Proposed maps released by Democrats and Republicans last week have drawn criticism by both sides that the other is attempting to gerrymander to lock in political advantages for the next decade.
Despite that, Brown sounded a note of optimism.
“This special session is an opportunity for legislators to set aside their differences and ensure Oregon voters have their voices heard at the ballot box,” the governor said in a statement. “Based on my conversations with legislative leaders, and the ongoing public testimony we are hearing from Oregonians across the state this week, I believe the Legislature is ready to begin the next step of the redistricting process.”
If lawmakers do not pass a plan by the deadline, Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan will take control of drawing legislative maps. A panel of judges will be tasked with approving a congressional map.