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When will the Oregon Capitol reopen to the public?

First came the coronavirus, then the windows boarded up against protest violence, and now even more Capitol construction. Any chance of reopening the Capitol before the 2021 Legislature ends in roughly two weeks seems questionable, regardless of when Gov. Kate Brown lifts most statewide restrictions. Brown is scheduled to hold a COVID-19 press briefing Friday morning.

The Legislature’s coronavirus safety plan limits who is allowed in the Capitol so long as Marion County is in the Oregon Health Authority’s extreme, high or moderate risk levels.

I asked Danny Moran, communications director for House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, about the decision-making process.

“As of the latest update this week, Marion County remains one of 11 high risk counties in the state,” he said in an email. “When Marion County enters Moderate Risk status, an evaluation group consisting of the Presiding Officers, caucus leaders, and supported by the OHA, shall direct the Legislative Administrator to develop a framework – based on subgroup recommendations – to expand in-person access to the Capitol and increase staff presence in the building in anticipation of entering the Lower Risk category.”

The Legislature, which is in charge of the Capitol, always could change that timeline. However, Democrats control the Legislature. So far, they have blocked Republicans’ attempts to reopen the building and/or end Brown’s pandemic state of emergency and curb her emergency directives.

Construction challenges await: As part of the ongoing Capitol upgrades, a construction fence blocks the main entrance. Piles of construction material sit between that fence and the front doors.

Once the 2021 Legislature leaves town, much of the building will be shut down for construction. The Capitol wings – legislative offices and hearing rooms – and underground parking garage will close July 10 for the rest of the year. Lawmakers have until July 9 to pack up their offices.

Legislative committee sessions will continue via Microsoft Teams. However, the House and Senate chambers will be useable during this fall’s expected special session on redistricting.

For the 2022 Legislature, committees are expected to be back to meeting in-person but in temporary hearing rooms. Legislators will be assigned parking spots in the Capitol Mall parking garage used by state employees.

Currently, construction trucks, construction workers’ personal vehicles and temporary “no parking” signs occupy many of the public parking spots around the Capitol.

On Thursday, House staff members were told they could park in the Capitol garage or along the Capitol’s backside for the evening floor session. That House session reportedly was to include the planned ouster of Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, for enabling protesters to enter the Capitol when it was closed to the public during the Dec. 21, 2020, special session.

Who oversees ethics?: In last week’s Capital Chatter, I wrote about the inconsistent responses to allegations of questionable conduct by lawmakers.

It gets curiouser and curiouser.

Taking Nearman’s future out of the hands of the House Conduct Committee, Kotek appointed a special bipartisan committee to consider his expulsion. Creation of that House Special Committee on December 21, 2020required a change in House rules.

In part, a separate committee was needed because it’s unclear whether the Conduct Committee’s purview is restricted to cases only involving harassment, discrimination and a hostile workplace, according to Conduct co-chair Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene. However, an outside investigator’s report on Nearman’s actions already had been completed for the Conduct Committee.

To make all this clear as political mud, here’s what Legislative Counsel Dexter Johnson wrote in response to questions from Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass:

“Action by the December 21, 2020 Committee does not render action by the House Committee on Conduct moot. The House Committee on Conduct is considering whether conduct by Representative Nearman violated the standards of conduct set forth in Legislative Branch Personnel Rule 27, which is a separate basis for determining disorderly behavior. If this committee sends HR 3 to the floor with a ‘be adopted’ recommendation and the House expels Representative Nearman, the House Committee on Conduct proceeding would be moot and need not proceed. If Representative Nearman resigns before an expulsion vote is taken, however, the House Committee on Conduct is required to continue with its proceeding. Finally, if an expulsion vote is taken on HR 3 and fails to obtain the required two-thirds vote, the House Committee on Conduct proceeding would not be moot and could proceed, but the House Committee on Conduct could not recommend expulsion as a remedy to be imposed.”

On Thursday afternoon, the committee did send HR 3, which would expel Nearman, to the House floor.

Meanwhile, I’m still wondering … who oversees legislative ethics? If not the Conduct Committee, who?

By the way, if Nearman is expelled from the House, nothing bars him from running for election again, according to Johnson. He also could apply to fill his vacant seat.

Nothing to sneeze at: The majority of bills introduced each session never become law. Why do lawmakers propose them despite a zero chance of success? Sometimes, it’s because the bill is a token effort on behalf of a constituent or interest group. Often, it’s to start the long process of educating colleagues about an issue and gaining their support.

The latter is the case with Rep. Bill Post’s bumpy journey toward helping Oregonians gain faster access to Sudafed and other cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine. 

Assuming Gov. Brown signs HB 2648, as of next year Oregonians no longer will need a health provider’s prescription to buy such medicines.

Oregon was the final state holding onto that requirement, a relic of law enforcement crackdowns on homemade meth labs, which use pseudoephedrine as an ingredient. Oregon remains awash in meth, but today it come primarily from Mexican drug cartels. And last fall, Oregon voters decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, including meth.

Under HB 2648, medications containing pseudoephedrine will remain behind the pharmacy counter, with ID required for purchase. But a prescription won’t be necessary.

Post, R-Keizer, first introduced the legislation in 2017. The bill didn’t get a hearing. Two years later, the bill passed the House but foundered in the Senate. This year, Post worked hard to get bipartisan and bicameral sponsorship, including Sens. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego.

Most of the opposition had faded. HB 2648 passed 54-4 in the House and 27-2 in the Senate.

“I am really relieved and excited,” Post said. “It was a ‘team’ win.”

Close to the end: Under the Oregon Constitution, this year’s Legislature must adjourn by 11:59 p.m. on June 27. In the meantime, legislators may continue to introduce bills. For example, Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, and a number of his Republican colleagues on Monday introduced House Bill 3407 to ban issuance of “vaccine passports.”

Because sine die – the formal adjournment – is deemed imminent, committees are allowed to meet on only one hour’s notice. If you’re interested in a bill, keep watching the legislative website – oregonlegislature.gov – to track its status.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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