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Should Oregon legislators still get paid if they don’t show up for work (i.e., the minority Republicans)?

Conversely, should legislators still get paid if they show up but merely go through the motions of collaboration and bipartisanship (i.e., the majority Democrats)?

Which brings us to an excellent question from a Bend reader: How should success be measured for a legislative session (i.e., success for Oregon as a whole)?

These questions arise because Friday, March 19, is the 60th day of this year’s 160-day session, and — no surprise — life is not particularly happy in the Oregon Capitol.

Next week, the House will resort to day and evening floor sessions — nearly 20 hours total — because House Republicans are effectively slowing the process. On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate is considering rule changes aimed at punishing Republican senators if they walk out again. The House adopted such rules already.

With a supermajority in each chamber, Democrats can rewrite the rules over Republican opposition. Meanwhile, Republicans are asking why legislators get $151 per diem even on days when they work from home.

Ah, partisanship. Depending on one’s point of view, each side is standing up for democracy and their constituents, or is being self-righteous and obstreperous.

Things could come to a head when, or if, the Senate votes on SB 554, which would allow the Legislature and local governments to ban almost anyone, including holders of concealed weapon permits, from carrying firearms in public buildings. Two years ago, the Democrats’ gun control legislation contributed to the Senate Republicans’ walkout that blocked the Senate from passing bills.

SB 554 is at the desk of Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, after being approved Feb. 25 by a Senate committee on a 4-3 partisan vote. Rumors are that it could go to a Senate vote next week. However, the Senate president’s communications director, Johnmartin Sherman-Lewis, told me that Courtney had no comment on when that might happen.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was among those who testified remotely to the state Senate Rules Committee, supporting Democrats’ proposed ballot measure that would reduce the quorum requirement for conducting legislative business.

Oregon has an unusually high bar. Two-thirds of members must be present for the Senate or House to vote on bills. SJR 4 would lower that threshold to a majority of members, thereby preventing the currently super-minority Republicans from blocking business.

The proposal resonates with diehard Democrats. But most Oregonians, regardless of party affiliation or independence, pay little attention to the Legislature. House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, told constituents this week that gaining voter approval of such a ballot measure would be difficult. Everyday Oregonians, who are not highly engaged in the political process, see the high quorum requirement as protecting democracy.

Reading, reading and more reading: Smith Warner and other Democrats have criticized the House Republicans for demanding that bills be read word-by-word on the House floor before being voted on. That takes up so much time that House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has decided that the House will meet next Monday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m.

The House had been meeting only on Monday and Tuesday mornings, with the rest of the days reserved for committee and caucus meetings. Little business is conducted on Fridays.

Slowing the legislative process is how Republicans seek to block bad laws and instead gain greater compromise from Democrats. House Republican Leader Christine Drazan in a recent floor speech said that Democrats were trying to marginalize Republicans’ participation. “We are not here to facilitate the ease of the passage of someone else’s agenda that harms my community and my state long-term,” Drazan said.

Survey says: Oregonians may pay little attention to life at the Capitol, but they’re typically not hopeful about the outcomes. In November 2020, DHM Research and the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center reported: “A recent poll found 80% of Oregonians are ending the year worried about our state’s future and concerned about the continuing impacts of COVID-19, homelessness, racial injustice, riots, lawlessness, climate change and more.

“What’s even more disconcerting is only 33% of us feel we can come together next year as Oregonians — urban and rural, Republican and Democrat, whites and communities of color — to make progress addressing these challenges and resetting Oregon.”

That “next year” is now, and DHM’s current survey found that Gov. Kate Brown’s favorability ratings among Oregonians had dropped further. As DHM’s John Horvick told OPB: “She has never been particularly popular. … She has been polarizing. She is as disliked by Republicans as Democrats dislike Donald Trump.”

In the survey this month, 11% percent of Oregonians held a very positive impression of Brown. Overall, only 37% had a very or somewhat positive impression of the governor, compared with 53% for President Joe Biden. Brown’s marks on handling the COVID-19 break similarly were below Biden’s.

Balance in Congress: Oregon currently has five seats in the U.S. House, all but one held by Democrats. We are projected to gain a sixth seat because the 2020 U.S. Census results are expected to show that Oregon has gained population relative to other states.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the latest DHM survey is that a plurality of respondents — 37% — said the most reasonable partisan makeup would be to have those Oregon congressional seats held by three Republicans and three Democrats.

Meanwhile, the process of drawing new legislative and congressional district boundaries is in limbo while states await the delayed Census results. In a complicated political and judicial process, the Legislature has sued Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, although the two sides say they’re actually cooperating. 

A court filing from the Attorney General’s Office, which represents the secretary of state, argues that the Legislature can go ahead without waiting on Census data, such as by temporarily employing statistics from the Population Research Center at Portland State University.

In contrast, We Draw Oregon, an organization involved in the process, this week asked the Legislature to slow down. In a letter to key legislators, the group wrote:

“We Draw Oregon, the next phase of We Count Oregon, and community-based partners are concerned about how the redistricting process is unfolding. The hearing schedule appears to be politically motivated versus driven by a sincere interest in community insights. The schedule and potential use of alternative data undermine the democratic process we urgently need to catalyze trust and civic engagement.”

Talking with the media: Several state figures conduct weekly or almost weekly press conferences via videoconference. They include Brown, Kotek and David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department.

Brown’s events focus on COVID-19 and her response. Her next one is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday and can be viewed on YouTube.

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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