Will Oregon legislators start their 2021 session and then disappear for several months?
That rumor has been spreading for weeks. The concept is that the 2021 Legislature would organize and then stop until the pandemic eased and the State Capitol again could be open to the public.
Oregonians pummeled legislators — that is, the Democratic leadership — for keeping the public from the Capitol during two special sessions this summer because of COVID-19 restrictions. The second session lasted one long, contentious day, during which legislators did not even take public testimony by videoconference or phone.
Closing the Capitol also meant lobbyists also could not keep watch, other than online, or have in-person closed-door meetings with legislators, their staffs and other lobbyists.
Now, committees primarily composed of legislative staff are working behind the scenes on best-case, worst-case and probable scenarios for conducting the 2021 session. Those ideas then will be presented to legislators. Supposedly, a full-fledged delay is not under discussion.
Still, in light of the grapevine rumors, it is worth exploring how that could happen. The Oregon Constitution limits legislative sessions during odd-numbered years to 160 days. The constitution does not set a start date. Instead, state law does, stating: “The regular sessions of the Legislative Assembly shall be held at the capital of the state and shall commence: (1) In the case of an odd-numbered year regular session, on the Tuesday after the holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday.” (ORS 171.010)
Theoretically, the Legislature could hold a special session and change that law. Gov. Kate Brown already has said she expects to call a special session later this fall to deal with the pandemic response and other issues.
However, a more likely approach might be that the Legislature convenes Feb. 1 as scheduled, conducts committee meetings via videoconference but — in hopes the pandemic eases by later in the spring — limits in-person gatherings, such as floor sessions in which legislators cast votes. Bills would pile up, but that could be partially alleviated by limiting the number of bills that are introduced, as House Speaker Tina Kotek has advocated in the past.
The recent revenue forecast, which was more positive than expected, means the 2021 Legislature need not rush to further rebalance the state budget before the current fiscal period ends June 30. The next forecast is scheduled for Nov. 18. Brown is expected to release her 2021-23 budget proposal around the end of November.
Under the constitution, a session that begins Feb. 1 would have to adjourn no later than July 11. A session can be extended in five-day increments if approved by two-thirds of the House and Senate.
The Legislature can hold an organization session for introducing bills, electing officers and hearing from the governor without starting the 160-day clock. Gov. Brown did not deliver a formal State of the State Address this year, which was unusual.
Speaking of technology: The Legislature is recruiting technical specialists, a limited-duration position that begins in mid-November “and will end as the 2021 legislative session concludes (early to mid-July, 2021).” That parenthetical note part of the job announcement, so apparently the personnel folks expect next year’s session to end roughly on time.
The job posting states: “Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Capitol Building is closed to the public and all non-essential personnel. Successful candidates will work both from home and within the building on a rotational schedule. While working from home, personal, stable and high-speed internet access will be required to perform the functions of this position.” Pay is $3,423 to $4,936 per month.
As the announcement states, “Technology has never been more important for the Oregon State Legislature than it is today.”
It's safe to say that the Oregon Legislature has not been at the forefront of embracing new communications technology, although rural lawmakers long have held regular teleconferences — now videoconferences — with constituent groups. This personifies the rural-urban divide: Most urban legislators live within easy driving distance of home, although some choose to stay in Salem during the week. Many rural legislators and their constituents live hours away and can feel cut off from Oregon’s capital.
The Legislature’s switch to videoconferences for committee meetings, forced by the pandemic, may equalize that experience — at least for now.
Speaking of jobs: Legislative Administrator Daron Hill retired this summer and recruitment of a replacement has been under way. I saw the job posted several weeks ago but, unlike other legislative openings, it was in a password-protected area. I can’t give you the job description and salary information because my requests for that information have gone unfulfilled.