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Oregon Legislature: Will Dems, GOP be able to get along?

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 25, 2022

Members of the Oregon Senate meet Dec. 13, 2021, during a special session of the Legislature, in Salem, Ore. Lawmakers are preparing to return to the Capitol next week for the 35-day legislative session.  (Andrew Selsky/Associated Press)
Members of the Oregon Senate meet Dec. 13, 2021, during a special session of the Legislature, in Salem, Ore. Lawmakers are preparing to return to the Capitol next week for the 35-day legislative session. (Andrew Selsky/Associated Press)
By Sara Cline Associated Press

PORTLAND – As Oregon lawmakers prepare to return to the state Capitol next week for the 35-day legislative session, Republicans and Democrats have differing opinions on what that time should be used for.

While Republicans say traditionally the short legislative session is used to address budget fixes and technical issues from the previous year’s long session, Democrats say some larger items can’t wait.

“The short session is designed for budgetary and legislative fixes,” House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson said Tuesday during the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview. “Big issues. Again, were not meant to be brought forward in a month-long session. But we’re already seeing some of those in committee agendas.”

Specifically, Rep. Breese-Iverson noted a previously introduced bill that is designed to require employers to pay agriculture workers overtime wages for work in excess of 40 hours in a week.

While both parties are cautiously optimistic they can get along, especially as there have been significant leadership changes from the previous session, Breese-Iverson reiterated that “tools” are on the table, this includes walkouts.

“If we see highly partisan and complex bills being rushed through the Legislature in February, Republicans are prepared to use the tools necessary to protect Oregonians from even more negative consequences from the majority’s short-sighted policies and failed leadership,” Breese-Iverson said.

Although this is a short session – when compared to odd-numbered years, when sessions can last up to 160 days as the legislature approves a two-year state budget for the next biennium – Democrats said this is the first short session since the beginning of the pandemic.

During that time span there have also been detrimental wildfires and deadly heatwaves.

“There are things that cannot wait two years in between the long sessions,” said House Majority Leader Julie Fahey. “The situation we’re in right now is exactly why we went to short sessions.”

Fahey’s sentiments were echoed by House Speaker nominee Rep. Dan Rayfield.

“We are continuing to come out of a crisis. People across Oregon, I know even in my own family, are fatigued or tired but there’s still an immense amount of work to be done,” the Democrat said. “Short sessions work for this exact moment. We are fortunate to be in a point in time where you have these issues in our communities that we can see and we can be responsive to and we’re also fortunate to have the resources to be able to do that in this session.”

The division in Oregon’s legislative chambers has been seemingly expanding over the past few years – as the minority party says they are not being heard and Democrats argue Republicans are not willing to compromise.

Republicans have relied on delay tactics, specifically walkouts, halting action at the state Capitol in recent years.

Tensions, specifically in the House, were exacerbated during Oregon’s redistricting special session, which was marked by a broken deal, another Republican walkout and accusations of gerrymandering.

However, two months later, lawmakers came together for a special session to successfully pass a number of bills, including one to prevent thousands of evictions in Oregon.

One big difference during the upcoming legislative session, from the previous year, are major leadership changes.

Among the changes, State Rep. Dan Rayfield is likely to take control of the Oregon House in February, after being officially nominated by Democratic representatives for the post on Sunday. Rayfield, will replace longtime speaker Tina Kotek who stepped down this month in order to focus on her campaign for governor.

House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, also stepped down from the post Sunday. Taking her place will be Rep. Julie Fahey, of Eugene. In addition, Breese-Iverson is the new Oregon House Republican Caucus leader after Christine Drazan stepped down to run for governor.

“I’m super hopeful with the three of us in these new roles,” Fahey said. “We have been able to work together successfully in the past. In the 2021 session and in the December special session, we were able to come together and ensure that the investments that we’re making are able to reach all corners of the state.”

The Oregon Legislature is scheduled to convene Feb. 1.

Priorities outlined by Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders include affordable housing, education, public safety, advancing the Private Forest Accord, allocating $100 million package in investments for childcare services, a $200 million package to bolster the state’s workforce and $38 million to help small businesses – through a recovery fund, expanding technical assistance and increasing funding to regional economic development organizations.

“I think it’s really clear that the last two years have been an incredibly difficult time for most Oregonians, in every part of the state,” Fahey said. “I know that all of us in the legislature … feel the weight of those challenges every day and we have to stay focused on rebuilding and stabilizing our communities.”

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