After weeks of painfully slow progress, Oregon’s 2022 legislative session finished at hyperspeed on Friday.
For most of the 31-day session, Republicans had expressed their disapproval of a Democratic proposal to grant farmworkers overtime pay by signaling they would demand bills be read in full before a vote. Computer programs doing that reading droned on for hours a day in both the House and Senate as lawmakers chatted or looked at their phones or wandered the Capitol.
Then the dam broke.
With the overtime bill’s passage inevitable given the Democratic majorities in both chambers — and a pledge from Democrats that no new amendments would be added to remaining bills — Republicans relented, and the session’s course was set.
Beginning Thursday, lawmakers voted on more than 60 remaining bills in quick succession. They cleared their plates just before noon Friday, throwing open the doors of their respective chambers to wave at each other across the Capitol rotunda and closing out a session that, despite its sluggishness, was among the most drama-free the Legislature has seen in years.
“I feel very proud of what we accomplished and I truly believe it was historic,” House Speaker Dan Rayfield said after lawmakers gaveled out.
Key to the session’s success, Democrats said, was a change in approach to Republicans forcing bill reading, an increasingly popular tactic for the minority party since 2016. In past years, Democrats have railed against the move, accusing Republicans of obstructionism. This year, legislative leaders planned for it, they said, prioritizing bills in such a way that they could complete their work even if they read every single bill.
“Reading bills is part of how we govern now and the Ds are getting better at it,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. “We had a plan... even if they read us to the end. We were going to be able to get through this thing.”
As they have much of the month, minority Republicans cast the session as an example of Democratic overreach.
“At a time when inflation is out of control, Democrats introduced a new sales tax and new spending,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said in a statement. “When Oregonians don’t feel safe in their homes, Democrats pushed an extreme soft-on-crime agenda that makes our streets more dangerous. As we close the book on the pandemic, Democrats clung to government overreach and mandates.”
Despite those complaints, Knopp acknowledged lawmakers “got some good, bipartisan things done for Oregon this session.”
With tax revenues surging, lawmakers added nearly $2.7 billion in spending to a budget they’d passed the year before, putting hundreds of millions of dollars toward housing, homelessness, mental health care, child care and other pressing issues facing the state.
That budget work — unheard of in an even-year “short session” — was the session’s main event, but the Legislature took up notable policy items, too. They passed bills that prevent police officers from stopping motorists for some minor infractions, help low-income Oregonians access air conditioning, give police more leeway to use teargas, and will give financial aid to poor families.
The Legislature carried out that work under relatively untested leadership. In the House, Rayfield and both the Democratic and Republican leaders were new to their roles — and showed they could get along more peaceably than leadership in recent sessions. In the Senate, Republicans had a new leader in Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend, while Senate President Peter Courtney, a legislative legend after four decades in the statehouse, served out his final regular session.
An unexpected rush of revenue
The state’s strong financial footing allowed lawmakers to make significant investments on some of the biggest problems facing Oregon. Paramount among them is $400 million to pay for homeless services, building affordable housing and helping low-income Oregonians purchase homes.
Another $200 million will bolster programs connecting people to job training, apprenticeships and education programs to help Oregonians find new jobs. The money will also help remove barriers felt by historically marginalized groups to successfully complete their education or workforce training. The investment comes at the request of Gov. Kate Brown and prioritizes manufacturing and health care jobs.
“I think this is a new standard for the nation being that it’s focused on equity and our historically underserved communities,” Brown said. “And I think you’ll see other states following Oregon’s lead.”
Lawmakers invested in school children by providing $150 million to create summer learning programs and gave extra money to school districts that have lost students because of wildfires.
And the Legislature will spend $180 million to send $600, one-time economic impact payments to more than a quarter-million Oregonians especially hard hit by the pandemic’s financial ramifications.
Majority Democrats in charge of prioritizing the budget also offered Republicans an olive branch by providing $100 million for a list of more than 60 projects in rural districts. The money will do things such as rehabilitate the Cape Blanco State Airport, help build a new community center in Medford and improve county fairgrounds across the eastern half of the state.
That money came with no strings attached and, as House members considered the budget on Friday, Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, commended House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, for the gesture.
“Not once was there any communication of ‘No, we’re not funding that.’ We were told the parameters, we went to work, and the list (of projects) was accepted,” Smith said. “Mr. Speaker, I applaud you for that.”
A fight over farmworkers
For the first time in eight decades, Oregon farmworkers will be eligible to earn overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week.
Farmworkers were originally excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the policy shepherding overtime pay.
It was the most contentious bill of the 2022 legislative session, with Republicans signaling early on it could be the measure they leave the state Capitol over. But in the end, the measure passed with civil and passionate objections from Republicans who echoed concerns of farmers that said the legislation would devastate their industry and force family farms to automate or sell to large corporations.
But many Democrats said farmworkers deserved equal treatment under the law.
Woodburn Representative Teresa Alonso Leon, whose family came to the U.S. from San Jeronimo Purenchecuaro, Michoacan, grew up watching as her parents worked on farms — often working 12 hour days, seven days a week, no matter the weather.
“Being a farmworker, colleagues, is not easy,” Alonso Leon said on the House floor. My parents to this day are skilled laborers but have been overworked and underpaid. I was with my parents and saw the hazardous conditions they faced, dirt, dust, debris, chemicals, pesticides and most of all back-breaking labor with few breaks.”
The bill phases in overtime pay in an effort to give farmers time to adjust to the new economic reality. Some farms will also be eligible to receive tax credits to help offset the costs of the overtime wages.
Oregon is now one of seven states who have passed some type of overtime pay for farmworkers, including Washington and California.
Mixed success on justice issues
Criminal justice reform continued to be a focus of Democrats this session, with some bills that had failed in past sessions crossing the finish line.
Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1510, which will prevent police from pulling over drivers because they have a single defective tail light, headlight, or brake light. The bill — which also includes millions for social services steered toward people of color, and tweaks to the state’s probation and parole system — was heralded by advocates as a way to limit frivolous police stops, and help correct racial inequities in the justice system. Opponents said it would not cut down on pretextual traffic stops but would allow more unsafe vehicles to remain on Oregon roads.
Lawmakers also provided help for Oregonians who are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Senate Bill 1584 will pay $65,000 for each year a person spent in prison for a crime they can prove they were innocent of, and $25,000 for each year spent on parole or in which a person had to register as a sex offender.
And the Legislature passed a bill that civil rights groups say eases restrictions on police use of tear gas that had passed last year after the City of Portland complained the new rules were unworkable.
But a number of high-profile justice proposals fell short. The Legislature punted on a bill that would have offered relief to people convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts, which the U.S. Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in 2020. District attorneys in the state opposed a proposal to allow people convicted on such grounds to seek a new trial, arguing crime victims would be traumatized.
Lawmakers also failed to meaningfully address a crisis in the state’s public defense system, though they did approve a nearly $13 million band-aid to ease the strain.
Heat help and superintendent protections
A persistent complaint of Republicans this session was that Democrats were overstepping the purpose of even-year short sessions, which were sold to voters in 2010 as a way to make budget tweaks and pass emergency bills. Democrats shot back that the session — taking place as the state tries to claw its way back from COVID-19 — amounted to the very emergency that voters had in mind.
Whatever the case, lawmakers took up an expansive range of bills, touching on less-pressing subjects like greyhound racing (outlawed) and wakeboarding (restricted on part of the Willamette River) but also plenty of weighty issues.
They passed a new law that will make it easier for renters and low-income households to access air conditioning, a response to 2021′s brutal heat dome. They approved $600 payments to low-wage workers to help pandemic recovery. And they took steps to ready Portland’s massive fuel tanks, which supply much of the state with gas, for the inevitable earthquake that will strike the region.
With rules for masking in schools roiling districts around Oregon and the country, lawmakers passed a bill preventing school boards from firing superintendents for obeying the law and creating new restrictions on boards’ ability to dismiss a superintendent without cause. That bill came after school board members in Newberg, Albany and other towns terminated their superintendents.
Lawmakers also solidified plans to protect the Elliott State Forest from logging, made it a misdemeanor to harass an election worker in connection with their job, and made it easier to register to vote.
Departing lawmakers … and Peter Courtney’s last ride
On the penultimate day of the 2022 legislative session, Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, a 42-year-old lawmaker, stood up to say goodbye to her colleagues and reiterated why she wasn’t seeking re-election.
“When we decided I would run, my spouse and I decided it would never be about the money,” she said. “We would cut costs, take extra jobs or do whatever it took to keep our bills paid, while I pursued this job I believed it was my calling. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.”
Williams, a social worker, was one of three lawmakers who announced last week they could no longer afford to serve in the state Legislature. Democrats Reps. Karin Power, a 38-year-old attorney, and Rachel Prusak, a 46-year-old nurse practitioner also announced they can no longer afford to serve. The Legislature is technically a part-time job, paying a base salary of about $33,000. In recent years, it’s become much more than a part-time job. Lawmakers considered raising salaries for legislators but the effort failed.
On her way out, Williams noted it’s not a job anyone should do to get rich, but she urged her coworkers to modernize the state Legislature and consider who the current salary prohibits from running.
“If we want a Legislature who can craft relevant policies on childcare, public schools, access to health care, affordable housing and more, we need lawmakers who understand those struggles,” Williams said. “Electing people who have made difficult choices between healthcare visits and rents could actually help us solve those problems, but only if they can stay here long enough to learn how this process works and build the relationships with the power brokers who can gatekeep even the best policies and keep them from getting passed.”
The longest-serving lawmaker in Oregon history also carried his final legislation on the Senate floor this week. One of the most powerful lawmakers in the Legislature for decades, Courtney’s decision to not seek re-election marks an end of an era. Courtney has long valued what people in the state Capitol call “the institution.” He strives to cultivate a more bipartisan way of doing business and has long had true friendships and functional working relationships with lawmakers whose political beliefs did not always align with his own.
“He has been a legend,” said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, the former Republican Senate Leader. “And the state’s a heck of a lot better because Peter Courtney has been here.”
In his characteristic taciturn fashion, Courtney declined to comment on the fact the session was likely his last. “I don’t understand these kinds of questions,” he said.
Left on the table
A number of notable items were left off the list of 130-plus bills lawmakers passed.
Lawmakers also failed to slaughter one of Oregon’s sacred cows: Its prohibition on self-serve gasoline. Senate Bill 4151 would have allowed gas stations to reserve a portion of their pumps for self-service, but despite bipartisan support, the bill died in committee.
Rayfield suggested after session that the proposal had fallen victim to the session’s tight timelines, saying leaders had to prioritize which bills to pass and which to let go.
And once again, lawmakers did not take up the issue of political spending. Several proposals that would have created limits on contributions to candidates and causes failed to attract much interest in the abbreviated session. That means the state’s best chance for creating those limits this year stands with several ballot measures that face an uphill battle to get on the November ballot.
Rayfield, who has unsuccessfully pushed campaign finance regulations in the past, pledged to make the issue a priority when lawmakers meet next year.
“I will always go back to campaign finance reform as something I see as an imperative,” he said.
Both Rayfield and Courtney, who is retiring from the Legislature, mentioned the failure of raising lawmaker pay as a missed opportunity of the session. Courtney said the issue would have to wait for a nonelection year, when both Republicans and Democrats might be more likely to agree on an issue that can look questionable to voters.
“It’s a dangerous issue in terms of political repercussions, i.e., getting reelected,” Courtney said. “You’re going to have to have both sides holding hands and willing to jump together.”