Capitol closed starting today

Oregon State Capitol

After a two-day delay caused by FBI reports of possible right-wing attacks on state capitals, the Oregon Legislature got down to the business of the 2021 session. 

On Thursday, 12 committees kicked-off with virtual hearings. About 46 House members held a 20-minute floor session to move along the first batches of bills onto the political conveyor belt of readings and assignment to committee. 

Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, gave what was officially the opening prayer, but was more a plea for cooperation amid the crises and chaos — with an "amen" at the end.

"We must figure out a way to climb out of the mire, and the time is now," Noble said. "Is it naive to think we can create a vision forward and people with differing options can engage without vilifying each other? Maybe. But I'm willing to try."

Noble said the alternative of remaining in the political mire would destroy families, communities, the state and nation.

It's just a lot of paper

A lot of trees died to churn out the 1,500 bills and resolutions submitted by House and Senate members for the 2021 session.

But Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, tweeted a simple truth: "Just because there's a bill about something, it doesn't mean 'the legislature' or 'the Democrats' want to pass it. At this point, it means one legislator had an idea."

If history is a guide, recycle bins around the Capitol will fill up fast with much of the legislation. In normal years, about 20 percent of bills make it to the full House and Senate for consideration.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, are eager to cap the time lawmakers are in Salem and the hours staff in the Capitol have to work on preparing bills and support materials. That's a formula for an extra high attrition rate on legislation not fast-tracked from the beginning. 

Drawing lines for 2022 election

Along with the official crises in front of the Legislature, the House and Senate committee on redistricting will be closely watched. Every 10 years, the new U.S. Census numbers are used to re-draw 60 state House districts, 30 state Senate districts and five Congressional districts. 

Oregon could get a sixth congressional district. The final numbers on which redistricting decisions will be based won't be released until April 1.

If the Legislature cannot agree on the new district lines, the mapping of state legislative districts goes to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, while congressional lines go to a federal panel. There are often court challenges. But the new boundaries will be in place for the 2022 elections.

COVID-19 vs open Capitol

State political reporters recently held an online meeting with legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown to get a preview of politics and policy agendas for 2021.

The Capitol has been closed to the public since Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in March as COVID-19 began its spread through Oregon.  The Legislature has held three short special sessions to deal with emergency measures tied to the pandemic, wildfires and police reform.

Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said the regular session of the Legislature should not continue with the public only able to take part via online testimony.

 "You do what you can to make it so that the public has a right to come in and testify," Girod said. "There are billions of dollars that are going to be spent."

Girod, 70, said he knew that with its many older members and those with health issues, the Legislature included people who were in high-risk categories for serious illness and even death.

But he argued a year of Oregonians being limited to virtual involvement was not acceptable in a transparent democracy. Opening the Capitol in some form was "worth the risk."

Courtney sharply disagreed. 

“I am not willing to play God with this stuff,” said Courtney, 77.

Nationwide, over 150 state lawmakers have become infected with COVID-19, according to the Ballotpedia political website, and seven have died.

Oregon's five short days of special sessions since March had avoided any infections. But the regular session would require many more gatherings in Salem. Reopening the Capitol would increase the viral exposure on each person inside.

"You may be willing to take the risk, but I am not," Courtney said.

Capitol security

Violent assaults on the Oregon Capitol on Dec. 21 and the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 are driving an aggressive review of security in Salem.

Oregon is one of 20 states that does not require visitors to pass through metal detectors to enter the state Capitol. It's one of 45 states that allow some form of open carry of firearms, including AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and other "long guns." It's even one of about 20 states that allow the guns to be carried into the Capitol. 

Senate Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said most protestors would say they carry the guns as an expression of their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

An incredulous House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, vigorously disagreed. The recent attacks show that the presence of armed protestors has a different motivation: "It's to intimidate," she said.

All aspects of security are under review, but any changes would be announced in public in advance and any change to gun laws would likely require legislation.

Courtney lives in Salem, represents a Salem district and has worked in the Capitol since he was first elected to the Legislature in 1981.

Surveying the reality today — the Capitol shuttered for 10 months, the attack on the Legislature, concrete blocks placed in front of the entrance, lower outside windows shielded against future riots by plywood, yards of fencing and National Guard troops on the grounds — makes Courtney immensely sad.

“This is really a traumatic thing to have Oregon, which is the most open Capitol in the nation, about to become a fortress,” Courtney said. “I never thought I’d see that, it breaks my heart.” 

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