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Mark Simmons, a Republican former speaker of the Oregon House, was set to testify this week at the Idaho Legislature in favor of letting Eastern and Southern Oregon counties become part of Idaho.

But a not-so-funny thing happened in the Idaho Capitol. Nine new COVID-19 infections were reported there, and the Idaho Legislature abruptly decided last Friday to shut down for a few weeks. 

Simmons, of Elgin in Union County, presided during the 2001-2002 legislative cycle. He was among a string of Republican House speakers. Now we have the longest-serving presiding officers in Oregon history, both Democrats, in Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem and House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland.

Simmons’ testimony at the Idaho Legislature has been rescheduled for April 12. Mike McCarter, president of the newly formed Citizens for Greater Idaho and head of Move Oregon’s Border, said testimony would show that “moving the Oregon/Idaho border farther from Boise will protect Idahoans from the ill effects of Oregon’s new drug law,” an apparent reference to last fall’s passage of Ballot Measure 110.

As for the pandemic, on Monday the Oregon House also partially shut down, canceling all floor sessions until March 29 because people might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 during the March 15-16 floor sessions. That person, presumably a House member or one of the few staff in the House chamber, was not publicly identified. As of Thursday, no additional positive tests had been reported.

Oregon, which has required legislators to wear protective facemasks on the House and Senate floors, had been among the few states without any coronavirus infections among lawmakers.

In the 70-member Idaho House, at least five Republicans and one Democrat have tested positive. Two of Idaho’s 35 state senators also contracted the coronavirus but have since recovered. Including staff, at least 15 cases have been reported in the Idaho Capitol.

Unlike Oregon, Idaho neither closed its Capitol to the public nor required face masks. Lawmakers were not allowed to participate remotely, but public seating was limited and the public was allowed to testify remotely.

Idaho politics are a reverse of Oregon’s, which is why some Oregonians embrace the notion of shifting the state border. Idaho Republicans are the ones who hold supermajorities in their Legislature. They outnumber Democrats 28-7 in the Idaho Senate and 58-12 in the House. The split is so wide that the House and Senate committees that will hear Simmons’ testimony have a combined 20 R’s and five D’s. 

Backers of an expanded Idaho suggest, “Areas that vote like Idaho does, and are economically healthy enough to be welcomed by Idaho, are eastern, southern and most of central Oregon, southeastern Washington and northeastern California.” 

It’s a longshot idea that would require congressional action, but five Oregon counties – Baker, Grant, Lake, Malheur and Sherman – have related measures on their May 18 ballot. Petition drives also are under way in Curry, Josephine, Jackson, Klamath, Harney, Morrow and Umatilla counties. Among the arguments being presented for the border charge are that “voters will appreciate Idaho’s overall lower taxes and red-state values on hot-button topics.”

One such topic is gun control, a defining issue of urban and rural America. 

Gun control in Oregon: “Colleagues, this is the urban-rural divide,” Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said Thursday as the Oregon Senate debated Senate Bill 554. It would allow the state and local governments to ban anyone, including holders of concealed weapons permits, from bringing firearms onto public property.

“You wonder why many counties in Eastern Oregon want a divorce from Multnomah County? This is why,” Knopp said. 

The bill passed 16-7 on a near party-line vote, with Betsy Johnson of Scappoose the only Democrat who voted no. Five senators declared potential conflicts of interest because they have a concealed handgun license (CHL): Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons; Lynn Findley, R-Vale; Knopp; Johnson; and James Manning Jr., D-Eugene.

Much of the debate came down to how comfortable people were in being around anyone carrying a concealed firearm. (Disclosure: I neither have a CHL nor own firearms but have friends and family members who do.)

A statewide survey this month by DHM Research found that 59% of respondents either strongly or somewhat support the policy behind SB 554. 

Responses were divided along geographic and partisan lines. Support in the tri-county metro area was 69%; Willamette Valley, 56%; and the rest of the state, 49%. Among Democrats, support was 80%, compared with 38% of Republicans and 54% of other voters.

State law currently bans most Oregonians from possessing firearms in public buildings unless they have a CHL, and Knopp described SB 554 as “a bill in search of a problem.” 

Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, has long been trying to get the policy through the Legislature. She said the identities of Oregon’s nearly 300,000 CHL holders are confidential, so it’s unknown whether any had committed violent crimes in public buildings. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, added that CHL holders were involved in at least 29 mass shootings nationally between 2007 and 2015.

Battle of the written word: The three-and-a-half-hour debate was quickly followed by dueling press releases.

From Senate Democrats: “Senate Democrats Approve Bill to Protect Students, Public Workers and Communities from Gun Violence” 

From Senate Republicans: “Democrats Advance Agenda to Make Life More Dangerous While Cracking Down on Oregonians’ Self-Defense Rights”

No walkout: Several Republican senators skipped this week’s floor session. Others who showed up were lambasted by constituents who wanted them to walk out and thus deprive the Senate of the quorum needed to conduct business. 

Sen. Findley told constituents during an online town hall this week that it would be impractical to think that Republicans could walk out for the next several months. Instead, he said, the Republican senators’ strategy during the floor debate would be to create ammunition for successful legal challenges if SB 554 becomes law. 

If opponents put as much effort into their litigation as they put into smearing him, Findley said, they should be very successful.

The bill also does not have an emergency clause. If it passes the House and is signed by Gov. Kate Brown, Opponents could mount a petition drive to refer it to a public vote. 

Trials of technology: Oregon is conducting all legislative committee meetings via videoconference, which Findley this week described as complicated, frustrating for the public and fraught with technical problems.

Similar glitches also interrupted the Senate when the public video stream crashed during the SB 554 debate. 

More on Idaho and gun control: Back when states appreciated mavericks, Idaho produced the liberal senator Frank Church, who served during 1957-1981 before losing re-election. On national issues, Church frequently was out of step with his conservative constituents. But on gun control, he staunchly opposed any attempt to hinder Idahoans’ right to bear arms. 

By the way, Church was the last Democrat from Idaho to serve in the U.S. Senate, just as Vic Atiyeh was the last Republican governor of Oregon, serving from 1979 to 1987.

Full disclosures on a lighter note: I went to high school in Idaho. Sen. Church, known for being longwinded, once gave a speech with his hand on my shoulder. I retain no recollection of what he said or why I was there; all I remember is wishing he’d move his hand. 

And … my dumb, inexplicable youthful ventures included climbing out a fourth-floor restroom window in the Idaho Capitol and crawling along the fourth-floor window ledge until I reached an open window in another room, where I reentered. I do not recommend this. 

By the way, I possess a great fear of heights, which is why I’ve never been to the top of the Oregon Capitol.

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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