At the halfway mark, the story of this year’s legislative session looked like one of Democratic dominance.
With supermajorities in both chambers and a newly re-elected governor, Democrats had already passed a first-in-the-nation rent control policy and looked well on their way to muscling through landmark bills on climate change and school funding.
Then May arrived, and the wheels came off.
Chafing at what they characterized as overreach, Republicans in both chambers revolted. Sessions in the House stretched for hours as the GOP insisted bills be read in full before passage. In the Senate, Republicans simply stopped showing up, twice employing a legislative nuclear option to win major concessions.
The result was one of the most dramatic and impactful legislative sessions anyone in the Capitol can recall — one marked by stark extremes.
Democrats got most of the big wins they expected — in particular a $1 billion a year tax on business that could fundamentally reshape Oregon’s education landscape. With little Republican help, they scaled back strict sentencing rules for juveniles, made modest changes to Oregon’s troubled pension system, passed statewide limits on rent increases and eased zoning regulations to encourage more housing density.
“This has been an incredibly successful session because we managed to have almost complete success on our top priorities,” said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. “It’s really important to point out the historic nature of this session is also the types of bills that were done, bills that have been in the works for multiple sessions.”
But Republicans had their say, too. By repeatedly walking away from the Capitol, GOP senators secured major concessions — none more stunning than the last-minute failure of a sweeping carbon pricing proposal that seemed pre-ordained. In the process, they might have fundamentally reshaped how politics is conducted in the state.
“I can’t think of a time that it was harder on me and more difficult,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told reporters moments after the session adjourned Sunday. “At times I didn’t know who I was negotiating with. It was far and away the hardest negotiations I have ever been in.”
Asked to evaluate the session, Courtney voiced a worry shared by many: That damage done to the relationships in the upper chamber could be irreversible.
“If you look at the institution (the Legislature) and the hit it took, it’s at least a D, maybe an F,” Courtney said when asked to grade the five-month session. “It was really troubling to me to see this institution get clobbered the way it was clobbered.”
The session began and ended with thorny personnel issues that caused serious rifts in the Capitol.
Courtney, the state’s longest-serving Senate president, came under intense scrutiny early in the year over how he handled allegations of sexual harassment in the legislative chamber he oversees.
An investigation by the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries concluded Courtney, Kotek, and other officials had allowed a culture of harassment to pervade the Capitol — a finding they strongly deny. Much of those findings were based on sexual harassment by a former state senator, Jeff Kruse.
The Oregon Legislature ultimately agreed to pay more than $1.1 million to eight women who were sexually harassed at the state Capitol as part of a settlement, and rumors swirled of a possible Democratic coup against Courtney. When he took a 10-day medical leave to recuperate from an eye problem in March, the tension in the Senate eased — temporarily.
The recent nine-day boycott by Senate Republicans roiled the Senate once again.
When Republican Sen. Brian Boquist heard the governor would send out the state troopers to bring absent Republicans back to the Capitol, he said state police should “send bachelors and come heavily armed,” if they tried to apprehend him. Boquist’s comments went viral.
The final day of the legislative session raised questions about how much the culture of the Capitol had changed in the past year. Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, asked that Boquist not be allowed back in the chamber after a legislative memo concluded his threats appeared credible. He was allowed in, prompting Gelser to stay off the floor in protest.
“We just finished six months of capitol culture (committee hearings) and despite all that, I’m told we don’t have the tools to keep people safe if someone makes credible threats of violence,” said Gelser, one of two senators who said they’d been harassed by Kruse.
For his part, Boquist has been unrepentant about this comment but dismissed any notion that people should feel threatened by his presence.
The matter is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. The Senate Conduct Committee is slated to investigate complaints against Boquist and could recommend he be disciplined by the full Senate.
“If they want to have a conduct committee meeting, that’s how the process works,” said Boquist, who departed the Capitol on Sunday hours before lawmakers finished their work and adjourned.
Faced with steep Democratic majorities — which they repeatedly accused of irresponsible overreach — Republicans spent the second half of session tapping some of the only tools available to them.
In the House, lawmaking slowed to a crawl when Republicans felt they weren’t being listened to by Democrats. For weeks on end, they refused to suspend a rule requiring bills be read in full before they received a final vote. That resulted in a House clerk reading bills for hours at a time, even if the proposal being considered wasn’t remotely controversial.
Republicans ultimately agreed to grant rule suspension without receiving any dramatic concession from Democrats. Kotek said she had instead worked with Republicans on reshaping bills.
“We had conversations about what people needed for their districts, [and] for bills that were difficult, what we needed to do differently,” she said.
One example Kotek gave: A bill requiring that older diesel engines in the state be phased out. The proposal was narrowed to apply only to engines in the Portland metro area as a result of talks.
Things were far more toxic in the Senate, where Republicans twice staged boycotts that froze the chamber. Without at least two GOP members present, the Senate lacked the 20-person quorum needed to conduct business.
The first walkout came in early May when Republicans hoped to stall a vote on a new business tax expected to raise $1 billion a year for schools. The caucus stayed away for four days, and returned after reaching an agreement with Democrats: They’d remain in the Capitol for the remainder of session, if Democrats killed bills to tighten vaccine regulations and gun controls, and agreed to “reset” House Bill 2020, a sweeping plan to regulate Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions.
As it turned out, there was a fatal flaw in that deal: No one seemed to agree on what “reset” meant.
Democrats said they’d allowed Sen. Cliff Bentz, the Republicans’ point man on the issue, more access to negotiations. But Bentz and other Republicans were angered when more of his ideas weren’t added to the bill.
So as HB 2020 marched toward a final Senate vote scheduled for June 20, Republicans walked again — most of them fleeing to Idaho to elude the grasp of state troopers. This time, they remained out for more than a week, returning only for the final two days of the session.
In the end, they achieved their goal — though perhaps not because of the walkout. Democrats announced there wasn’t enough support in their own party to pass HB 2020. It died in committee when the session adjourned.
Big Priorities Passed
Beyond the partisan drama, the 2019 session will be most known for the dramatic policies Democrats were able to pass with their supermajorities.
“If you look at it in terms of public policy, it’s extraordinary,” said Courtney. “I still don’t know everything we did.”
Gov. Kate Brown, a veteran of both the House and Senate, agreed. “I don’t remember a legislative session where we have made this much progress,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Republicans didn’t see things that way.
“Governor Brown and the supermajority have made it clear they have every intention of rewarding their campaign donors and tightening their grip on power,” House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said in a statement. “They have no intention of looking out for the working people of this state.”
By far the most ambitious bill to pass was a new “commercial activities tax” on Oregon businesses with more than $1 million in Oregon sales. The bill — the product of nearly a year’s work by a special legislative committee — is expected to raise $1 billion a year for K-12 schools in the state. In passing what supporters call the “Student Success Act,” lawmakers said they had solved a decades-long puzzle to provide adequate funding to the state’s public schools.
Lawmakers passed an enormous array of other policies that will have wide-ranging impacts for years to come — and many of them were approved with little to no debate as the Legislature hurtled toward their constitutionally-mandated adjournment at midnight Sunday. Among the more notable changes, they:
— Rejiggered the state’s troubled pension system to realize short term savings, and require employees to pay into the system.
— Passed a first-of-its-kind law allowing duplexes and other multifamily buildings on plots of land currently restricted to single-family homes.
— Approved the nation’s first statewide rent control law. Landlords in many instances are now barred from raising rents more than 7 percent plus inflation each year.
— Created a new paid family medical leave policy that will grant workers up to 12 weeks of pay if they need to miss work for illness or to care for a family member, starting in 2023.
— Passed needed funding for the state’s Medicaid system, and referred to the November 2020 ballot a tobacco tax hike to further bolster money for health care.
— Banned grocery stores and restaurants around the state from using disposable plastic bags, and required that customers ask before being given a disposable plastic straw.
— Signed Oregon on to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, ensuring that the state’s seven electoral votes could be given to whichever presidential candidate wins the most votes nationwide if enough states sign on.
— Narrowed the state’s death penalty by more strictly limiting which crimes are punishable by death.
— Approved sweeping changes to the way serious juvenile offenders are sentenced. That marked a significant change from the tough-on-crime guidelines approved by voters decades ago.
— Gave voters the chance to alter the Oregon Constitution to allow limits to campaign contributions.— Required some nonprofit organizations that give heavily to campaigns to disclose their top donors.
— Granted driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and others who cannot show proof of citizenship.
In a session where lawmakers considered thousands of bills, some high-profile proposals fell by the wayside.
The biggest surprise was HB 2020, which would have set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions and charged manufacturers, utilities and fuel importers for their pollution.
The proposal had been in the works for more than a decade and was the subject of grueling hearings by a special Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction. It was discussed perhaps more than any other bill of the session.
But the proposal fell victim to targeted messaging by its committed foes, who hammered away at an expected increase in fuel prices expected under the program and the fact that Oregon produces a tiny fraction of global emissions. Though polling has suggested a majority of Oregonians want to take action on climate change, opponents sowed enough doubt that the bill stalled.
“I think we failed to communicate to all Oregonians the benefit of the bill,” Kotek said. “There’s a lot of misinformation and fear and, if we’re going to eventually pass that bill, we need to do a better job talking about the benefits of the bill. We will definitely get started on that as soon as we all get back from vacation.”
Gov. Kate Brown, unwilling to allow the cap-and-trade proposal to slip into obscurity, signaled a potentially dramatic move Monday: She threatened to use executive action to institute a carbon pricing policy if businesses and lawmakers that oppose the plan don’t help negotiate a path forward.
“Given the uncertainty that now permeates Oregon’s political system, I am also now directing my staff and agencies to explore alternative paths in case these collaborative approaches do not lead to successful legislation,” Brown said. “This includes the use of my executive powers and direction of state agencies.”
Among some of the other notable bills to die were proposals to:
— Eliminate nonmedical exemptions for vaccines schoolchildren are required to receive
— Enact a number of new gun controls, including a mandatory “safe storage” requirement.
— Dramatically alter Oregon’s possibly unconstitutional public defense system. A bill that would have done so was watered down in the last days of the session, then killed in the Senate.
— Ask voters to alter a law that allows non-unanimous guilty verdicts by juries in many felony cases. Oregon is now the only state in the country with such a provision.
— Ban food containers made of polystyrene foam — better known as styrofoam. That bill died as a result of support for a Tigard facility that can recycle the material.
-— Do away with limits to the “noneconomic” damages juries can award in civil trials.
— Keep a portion of the record $1.4 billion “kicker” tax refund expected to go back to voters next year.
— Tie lawmakers’ pay to the state’s average salary — a change that would result in a nearly $20,000 raise.
— End the practice of “prison gerrymandering” where prisoners are counted as residents of where they are locked up, rather than where they lived prior to incarceration.