The leaders of the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives have unveiled their 2019 picks for who will chair legislative committees, the small clusters of lawmakers that do the hardest work on bills in Salem.
While much on the rosters remain unchanged — after all, Democratic control of the Legislature grew stronger in the recent election — there are some notable alterations.
Barker To Business And Labor
In perhaps the most surprising move, state Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, will no longer chair the House Judiciary Committee, which he’s helmed since 2007. House Speaker Tina Kotek has instead given the gavel to a fellow Portland Democrat, Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson. Barker learned Wednesday he will instead be chairing the House Business and Labor Committee.
“I was shocked and disappointed, and she knows that,” Barker told OPB. But, he said, “I’m not the kind of guy who picks up my ball and goes home.”
With the upcoming session likely to feature a number of high profile justice issues, the change is especially notable. Legislators are expected to consider new gun controls, scrapping Oregon’s unique policy of allowing non-unanimous jury verdicts and changes in how the state handles public defenders.
Barker said he’s not entirely sure what led to the change, though he acknowledged he's opposed recent attempts to alter criminal sentencing laws without requiring voters to weigh in.
One example: A proposal to gut Oregon's death penalty without a public vote. After OPB recently reported on that idea, Barker says he spoke to Kotek about it.
“I met with the speaker and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” he said. “I said, ‘Voters need to be involved.’”
Barker said that conversation happened Tuesday, a day before he learned he would no longer chair the Judiciary Committee. Kotek says the issue had nothing to do with her choice. In fact, she agrees.
"This decision was not a reaction to any policy position, including the death penalty bill," Kotek said in a statement. "Rep. Barker and I are in agreement that any change to the death penalty is a constitutional question to be decided by the voters. That did not impact his committee positions in any way."
Williamson has told OPB she will cosponsor the legislation to change the death penalty. She said Thursday she was "honored" to be named judiciary chair.
Barker, a retired Portland police lieutenant, has spent his entire legislative career on the Judiciary Committee. Kotek initially wanted to transfer him off it entirely, he said, saying it would be awkward for him to continue on while not being chair. He convinced her to change her mind.
“She threw me a bone on that, which I appreciate,” Barker said.
New Senators, New Committees
Senate President Peter Courtney handed two rookie members the reins to committees that will tackle some of 2019’s central issues.
Incoming Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, will sit atop a new Senate housing committee. New Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, will preside over a new committee tackling campaign finance reform.
The appointment of Fagan — a former state representative who unseated Democratic Sen. Rod Monroe this year while running on a housing platform — is partly striking because of the signals she's sent since being elected.
In November, Fagan and other progressive senators criticized aspects of Courtney's leadership. Particularly in their sights was the Senate president's preference not to bring up bills for a vote unless they have some Republican buy in.
“You can’t put the same people in charge — under the same rules, under the same caucus — and get substantially different results,” Fagan said last month, before Senate Democrats tapped Courtney for another term as president. “I’ve been very direct with them that I want different results out of the Senate.”
Fagan said Thursday she had pressed Courtney repeatedly in recent months to create a housing committee and allow her to chair it. She got a call this week saying he’d decided to grant the request.
“I was very open during my election that there are things we need to change in the state Senate,” said Fagan, who added Courtney was working “very hard” to earn her respect. “He has listened. I take housing very seriously, and I intend to deliver on major housing reforms.”
Housing figures to be a major issue next year, as Oregon tries to dig its way out of a crisis.
In her recently proposed budget, Gov. Kate Brown advocated pouring record funds toward developing housing units around the state. And earlier this month, Willamette Week reported that Kotek would like to do away with residential zoning codes that only allow single-family homes in cities of 10,000 people or more.
Fagan isn’t saying much about what changes she envisions at this point. But she referenced the 2017 Legislative session, in which the House passed a bill that would have enabled cities to enact rent control, among other tenant protections. The bill ultimately died in the Senate, even after the rent control provision was stripped out. (Monroe’s role in the bill’s defeat ultimately helped spur Fagan to run against him.)
“The way I look at it is … that was the housing coalition’s last best offer prior to me getting elected and Jeff Golden getting elected and three Democrats beating Republicans in the Oregon House,” Fagan said. “You don’t go back to the negotiating table at your last best offer when you’re now in a stronger position.”
Golden won a hotly contested Senate seat in southern Oregon this year partly on a platform of cleaning up money in politics.
"Politicians should serve the people who elected them," the Democrat's campaign website said, "not the special interests that write big checks."
The Senate does not currently have a campaign finance committee, and Kotek did not create a similar committee in the House.
After years of failing to pass meaningful changes, lawmakers could seriously consider reining in Oregon's permissive campaign finance laws during next year's session. During her re-election campaign this year, Brown vowed to craft a proposal for limiting money in campaigns. That pledge led Patrick Starnes, the Independent Party of Oregon's nominee for governor, to suspend his campaign and throw his weight behind Brown.
Golden did not respond to a request to discuss the new committee Thursday morning. A spokesman for Courtney was unavailable to talk about the appointments.
Boquist Loses Vice-Chair Spot
In another turn, state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, lost his position as vice-chair of the influential Senate Finance and Revenue Committee. Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, will now sit in the vice-chair spot. Boquist remains a member of the committee.
The move comes as Boquist and Courtney's office have publicly clashed lately. The East Oregonian recently reported Courtney issued Boquist a "cease-and-desist" letter in November, citing "hostile, intimidating and harassing" interactions he said Boquist had had with legislators and staff.
Boquist was also sent a "memo of concern" by the Legislature's chief lawyer, Dexter Johnson, after cameras in the Capitol spotted him slipping pamphlets under some senators' office doors on November 15. Boquist has acknowledged delivering those papers, which apparently contained unflattering information about Golden, his incoming Senate colleague.
More recently, Boquist has written state officials at the Oregon Ethics Commission, Secretary of State’s Office, and Department of Justice, to say he’s heard “civil and criminal allegations” regarding Courtney’s office. He did not offer more detail, and said that some of the allegations “were pretty unbelievable to me personally.”
Those conflicts aside, new revenue will be a hotly contested topic in Salem next year. Brown’s recent budget proposal included a challenge for legislators to find nearly $2 billion in money for schools, much of which would likely come from new taxes.
A spokesman for Courtney couldn’t be reached about the decision to bump Boquist from the vice-chair role. Asked if he had any insights, Boquist replied: “He does not like me. And he thinks he can get Cliff Bentz to vote for his taxes … fat chance.”