Capital Chatter: Special session Q&A

Oregon's 90 legislators are about to learn what it's like to operate within the restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It won't be easy, as myriad businesses and now-unemployed Oregonians have learned.

Lawmakers will return to Salem on Wednesday to conduct the people's business but without the people. The Oregon Capitol will remain closed to the public, with only legislators, a limited number of staff, Oregon State Police troopers and journalists allowed in.

"Our goal is to have as few people in the building as possible," House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told her House colleagues on Thursday. "It's hard enough to do a special session, and we're adding on the additional complexity of doing that in a pandemic."

For your reading pleasure, I put together this Q&A about the special legislative session.

How many special sessions will there be?

Who knows. The committee appointed by Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to handle the legislation is called the Joint Interim Committee On The First Special Session of 2020.

How long will it last?

Probably more than one day, but no one knows. Even the simple act of casting a vote will take far longer. To maintain physical distancing, legislators will be brought into their respective chambers in small groups to vote.

Much of what we know today is from Kotek, who held a videoconference Thursday morning with House members. Reporters were allowed to listen in as she and others discussed the potential procedures. Courtney is scheduled to hold a similar videoconference for senators on Friday.

Kotek told representatives who would be staying overnight in Salem to count on at least two nights.

What determines the session length?

Whether the House, Senate, Democrats and Republicans agree on the operating procedures, and whether they and Gov. Kate Brown agree on the legislation.

About two dozen concepts are being developed. As many as legally possible will be shoved into the same bill, thereby decreasing the number of times legislators have to come onto the floor to vote.

Of course, such omnibus bills also are more likely to pass, because lawmakers cannot isolate the items they find objectionable.

Wait, aren't the Democrats in control?

Well, yes, but as I've noted previously, Democratic lawmakers in general are less cohesive than Republicans. Meanwhile, Kotek has consolidated power in the Capitol, and she and Brown privately have been at odds this spring.

That showed in the bizarre path to this special session. Lawmakers expected Brown to call a special session after this year's regular session collapsed.

Then came the pandemic. Kotek and Courtney appointed a special coronavirus response committee months ago in preparation for what was expected to be an imminent session.

Instead, Brown issued a series of executive orders.

Many legislators, particularly Kotek, have kept pushing. Last week, her staff announced that budget subcommittees would meet this week in anticipation of Brown's calling a session to take up police accountability and pandemic-related measures.

But Brown wants to hold off budget discussions until later this summer. The legislative budget meetings were canceled. On Monday, Brown said would announce $150 million in state budget savings this week.

What role will the minority Republicans have?

I am so glad you asked. House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby said Thursday that Republicans don't want to be treated as if they are in a game of "Mother, May I?" That is the best description I've heard for what it's like serving in the Legislature's political minority.

"I remain concerned about abiding by the Constitution and preserving the voice of the minority in the process," Drazan said.

Will all 90 legislators attend?

That is up to each lawmaker. The Legislature skews much older than the overall Oregon population. Due to age and/or health conditions, many lawmakers are potentially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, pointed out that Brown has advised Oregonians not to travel long distances.

"For us to participate in a session, people have to be present," Kotek responded. "It will be up to each individual member to understand and reflect on the protocols that are being put in place with regard to how they feel about their own personal safety and whether or not they have underlying health conditions. "

Will the Legislature comply with Brown's distancing rules?

The Legislature is to convene Wednesday. That also is when Brown's requirement to wear face coverings at indoor public places goes into effect for seven counties. Marion County, where the Capitol is located, is among them.

Kotek said it was unclear whether the governor could impose such a requirement on the legislative branch. In any case, Kotek said, she was requiring face coverings for anyone on the House floor.

Capitol staff will have face masks available, and it will be up to people to keep their mask clean.

Legislators and others will be spread out, including in balconies, so as to maintain six feet in all directions between individuals.

There also will be no legislative pages or doorkeepers.

What about the public?

Legislative committee meetings and floor sessions are streamed online. At least one computer will be set up on the Capitol steps for anyone who lacks internet access. The special session committee will accept written testimony and, I expect, have some testimony by phone or video.

How will decisions be made?

Legislative leadership generally determines what happens. Committee chairs also have considerable influence.

Kotek and Courtney have appointed themselves as co-chairs of the Joint Interim Committee On The First Special Session of 2020, whose first meeting is Monday afternoon.

The House and Senate Republican leaders — Drazan and Sen. Fred Girod of Stayton — are the co-vice chairs.

Other members are Democratic Sens. Ginny Burdick and Lew Frederick, both of Portland, and Floyd Prozanski of Eugene; Republican Sens. Tim Knopp of Bend and Kim Thatcher of Keizer; Democratic Reps. Janelle Bynum of Happy Valley, Paul Holvey of Eugene and Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego; and Republican Reps. Rick Lewis of Silverton and Duane Stark of Grants Pass.

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 Twitter.com/DickHughes.

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