Democratic lawmakers are bringing a hefty policy agenda into the legislative short session that starts in February, including an ambitious climate change policy, stricter gun laws, preparing the state for an earthquake, changing the way wildfires are fought and funneling millions toward the state’s housing crisis.
But first, they must convince Republicans to stay in the building.
Looming over the 35-day legislative session is the prospect that Republicans could once again stop all business by fleeing the state.
When Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, walked into a room full of reporters at the Associated Press legislative preview on Friday, she immediately took note that her counterpart who led the walkout in the 2019 legislative session, Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, was not present.
“Senate Democrats: We show up,” Burdick quipped.
Senate Republicans left the state in the 2019 legislative session in order to prevent a vote on the controversial climate change proposal. A measure to curb carbon emissions is once again at the top of Democrats’ priority list, and Republicans have signaled that another walk out is not off the table.
Newly elected House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said a walkout is a “breakdown of the process,” but she didn’t rule it out as an option to block the climate change bill.
Democrats have proposed changes to the bill since the previous legislative session, but there was little evidence that the political and cultural differences over the measure have changed.
“It is not yet time for cap and trade because we cannot prevent these costs from being passed on not to big companies, not to utilities but just straight down the line to Oregonians,” Drazan said.
One of the measures that was scrapped to entice Republicans back to work during their first of two walkouts last legislative session was a bill requiring gun owners to secure their firearms when not in use. That idea will be back into play this legislative session.
Burdick, a longtime champion of tighter gun laws, said she also plans to introduce a bill allowing local governments to have gun-free workspaces if they choose. The Portland Democrat said it’s currently a felony to bring a gun in a public building, but there are exceptions for concealed firearms. Her bill would change that.
So, she said, the Capitol could become gun free.
Lawmakers will also be grappling with how to spend roughly $1 billion dollars, according to the governor.
Gov. Kate Brown, D-Portland, said she would like to see at least half of that set aside and put into savings.
“Our economy has been really good for the past several years, we have the lowest unemployment rate on record, but we don’t know when that’s going to end,” she said.
Brown said she hopes to see $150 million to $200 million put toward helping the state adapt to wildfires and change how they are fought.
“The way we have been fighting fires no longer suits the type of fires we’re seeing,” the governor said. “We’re using last century’s fire (fighting) techniques for last year’s fires.”
Brown’s proposal calls for land-use planning changes, new building codes and new jobs in the Office of Emergency Management to help handle wildfire emergencies.
Brown also wants lawmakers preparing for another emergency: a possible earthquake.
“We are the only state on the entire West Coast that hasn’t funded the Shake Alert,” she said. “We need to get this done. Oregonians deserve it.” Shake Alert is an earthquake early warning system.
Another certain focus this legislative session will be addressing the state’s housing crisis.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has called for declaring a statewide emergency that would allow cities around the state to more easily site homeless shelters. Kotek estimates the price tag could be about $120 million, split between affordable housing initiatives and addressing those who are living without shelter.
“It is a crisis. We are at crisis level,” Kotek said.
Lawmakers were more tepid about any major campaign finance overhauls this legislative session. Oregon remains only one of a handful of states that has no limits on contributions to state and local races.
On Friday, key lawmakers said they want to see what voters do with a November 2020 constitutional amendment before passing any major legislation. If voters approved the constitutional amendment, it would allow limits on political contributions and clear a major obstacle for those pushing for tighter controls on the role of money in politics.
The dynamics this legislative session could be interesting. Drazan replaced Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, as the leader of House Republicans. And Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, replaced previous House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, another Portland Democrat who resigned her seat to run for secretary of state.
Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest-serving legislator in Oregon history, is currently in the hospital for hip pain but is expected to return to work for the session.