The Oregon Capitol remains closed to the public. But the supermajority Democrats say the 2021 legislative session is the most open, transparent and accessible on record, thanks to the use of technology.
Capital Chatter reader Jen Hamaker disagrees, and she’s a layperson who has worked to embrace that technology.
“This session has been extremely frustrating, and I feel further silences and marginalized rural Oregonians,” Hamaker told me.
Her views may be partisan, but she’s right. The technology can be glitchy and confusing.
The Oregon Legislature does most of its work in committees. In many ways, the Legislature has made an astounding transition from in-person committee meetings to videoconferences. Regardless of where Oregonians live, they can testify on bills by phone or video without having to drive to Salem.
Yet it seems a stretch to cast the 81st Legislative Assembly as the paragon of accessibility and public participation.
Legislators can’t always see each other during committee meetings, which are conducted via Microsoft Teams. Balky connections frequently cause people to miss their turn to testify. Committee documents sometimes have been inaccessible. In rare instances, the House and Senate floor sessions had to halt because the live video for public viewing had crashed.
Hamaker brought another issue to my attention. If a bill is rescheduled for a hearing on a different day, the previously submitted written testimony seems to disappear. When Hamaker asked legislators and staff about that, they said testimony doesn’t carry over to a new meeting date, so people must resubmit it.
But Misty Mason Freeman, director of the Legislative Policy and Research Office, told me that’s always been the case. The original testimony is still there, if people know to click on a different tab.
At the least, it’s confusing.
Lessons learned: I took advantage of my interactions with Freeman to ask about any technology lessons that have emerged from this virtual legislative session.
“I do think that folks who download the full Microsoft Teams app are having an easier time participating in meetings than those who use the browser version,” she said.
“There are also many ways we are continuing to refine our systems. For example, we continue to update our testimony signups to be easier to read and the follow-up email more straightforward. Our Information Systems partners have made improvements like making clickable links to the online portal for submitting written testimony and the testimony signup page. We are also getting better at ‘pinning’ ASL interpreters and working with Spanish language interpreters during meetings. We still have a lot to learn though!”
And the view from the top: Danny Moran, communications director for House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, gave this response to my questions about technology:
“The speaker’s focus for this session continues to be keeping people safe while doing the people’s work. More Oregonians are participating in the legislative process due to the use of technology, while preventing the spread of COVID-19. Legislators and nonpartisan staff has worked incredibly hard to manage this technology during an unprecedented session and there have been many improvements each week since the start of the session to improve the user and member experience. Speaker Kotek has collaborated with Republican vice chairs to get their input on how to make improvements.”
Don’t write in ink on your calendar: Committee chairs reschedule bills for many reasons. One is for the convenience of the sponsoring legislators or supporting organizations. Another is because proposed amendments have not been worked out. An often it’s for lack of time on a crowded agenda.
As of Thursday, the Legislature was halfway through this year’s 60-day session. This is a point when it is difficult to look at a committee’s agenda and tell what actually is happening.
April 13 is a critical deadline for many committees to act on bills; otherwise, they die.
“A number of those bills at the end of the day won’t be ready by deadline,” Kotek said during her media briefing this week. “Things are pretty fluid. Getting the paperwork back. Trying to get the amendments done.”
Time is everything: An additional issue that Hamaker raised is that some people get several minutes to testify on a bill; others get less than one.
Because of those crowded agendas, individuals often are limited to two or three minutes of testimony. Sometimes, the limit is as little as 30 seconds, as happened last month when the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee took testimony on HB 2844 regarding beavers.
The committee chair, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, allowed the proponents’ panel to speak for 10 minutes. The opponents’ panel was stopped at six minutes. A few members of the public then were given one minute each to talk.
When Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon asked whether there would be another opportunity to hear public testimony, Witt responded, “Unfortunately, no. Our agenda’s just too full. I’m sorry.”
The bill apparently is dead – unless it’s resuscitated before the Legislature adjourns for the year.
On the other hand, committees sometimes are wrongly accused of shortchanging public testimony. Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, said during the debate on a contentious firearms measure, SB 554, that testimony had been limited to only one minute per person in the Senate Judiciary committee. That Republican talking point was making the rounds, but it was wrong. Kennemer apologized when the Senate next met.
Committee chair Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, had allowed three minutes per person, although the nearly four-hour hearing ended before many people got a chance to speak.
A boring but free computer voice: When Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, got up to speak on HB 2111, he drew laughter by starting with, “Colleagues and Madam Speaker, I have to make a confession. I didn’t listen to the whole bill. But I heard some snippets.”
To slow the Democrats’ agenda, House Republicans insist that most legislation be read aloud word-by-word before being voted on. That includes many routine bills. HB 2111 merely changes the name of the "Oregon Liquor Control Commission" to "Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission." The legislation takes 170 pages to accomplish that, because of all existing references in Oregon laws.
The Chief Clerk’s Office, whose employees read bills in the House, found an alternative that saved employees’ voices and potentially reduced the risk of coronavirus transmission. A free computer program, Balabolka, became the voice of HB 2111 for the more than 10.5 hours it took to read the bill over the course of three days.
The bill then passed 54-1, with only Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, voting no.
The computer-generated voice, which the House also is using for other longish bills, is understandable and does not rush through the words.
Women lead the House: Thirty-one of the 60 House members are women, now that Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland, has been sworn in to complete the term of recently resigned Rep. Diego Hernandez.
The presiding officer and caucus leaders are all women: Speaker Kotek; House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland; and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby.
In the Senate, those leaders are all men: President Peter Courtney, D-Salem: Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego; and Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons.
A nonpartisan ray of sunshine: The State Capitol State Park includes 151 Akebono cherry trees. The blossoms have been at their peak, inspiring Republican Cate, to write, “It’s been another bumpy week in the Capitol, but at least the views out my office window are amazing!”
And from Democrat Wagner: “Despite some damage from February's ice storm, the Capitol Mall Cherry tree grove is in full bloom once again. Even after 25 years of work in the state capitol, this view never disappoints!”
About Oregon: The latest edition of the Oregon Blue Book, the definitive almanac and fact book of Oregon government, is now available for purchase from the Secretary of State’s Office. The 2021-2022 edition celebrates the upcoming centennial of Oregon State Parks. Although I frequently use the free online version, I have found the print edition quite useful.