The middle of February is when the mood of the Oregon Legislature shifts from aspiration to perspiration.
Passing the one-month mark in the 160-day session, the House and Senate are starting to measure the slow pace of lawmaking against the time needed to deal with a mountain of bills and resolutions introduced last month.
Over 2,000 bills and resolutions have been introduced in the past month.
While major packages have begun the grinding journey through hearings and committee votes, a large portion of bills are sitting at the starting line, with the day they were introduced likely to be the peak of any optimism they might become law.
Gov. Tina Kotek received a constitutional jump start, being sworn into office on Jan 9. On Jan. 10, she signed a quartet of executive orders around her declaration of a state emergency over homelessness. She's filled — and in some cases fired — agency executive positions and released a proposed budget that emphasizes her three core priorities: building more housing, better access to mental health and addiction services, and a rise in literacy in K-12 schools.
She's called on the Legislature to catch up and pass her request for $130 million for homeless help.
“Oregonians are demanding bold action to reduce homelessness and build more housing,” Kotek said. “I’m urging the Legislature to act now on this urgent homelessness package."
Besides homelessness, the long list of legislation introduced shows that lawmakers have their own take on the issues on which Oregonians are "demanding bold action." Democratic leaders plan to bring up gun control, abortion rights and carbon pollution reduction. Republicans are pushing tax cuts, limits on the governor's executive orders and ensuring Oregon's one-of-a-kind "kicker" tax rebate isn't sidetracked into funding government programs.
For the past four years, Democrats have enjoyed a "supermajority" of more than three-fifths of the members of the Senate and House. That allowed them to pass taxes and other financial legislation without needing any Republican votes. But the 2022 election ended with Democrats holding a 35-25 majority in the House and a 17-13 edge in the Senate. That leaves them one vote short of a supermajority in both chambers.
The legislative wish list of January hits a wall of reality starting next week with the first key deadline — Tuesday is officially the final day that lawmakers can introduce new bills to be considered in 2023.
What bills get attention will be at the mercy of two dueling realities: A long list of legislation piling up since January, and an inexorable advance toward a drop-dead deadline in June.
The first reality is flexible: The number of bills, their length, required hearings, committee debates, possible amendments and final votes. Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, is using a parliamentary move to require all bills be read out loud in their entirety before a final vote. That has slowed the pace of the Senate compared to a more conciliatory atmosphere — for now — in the House. It is the job of House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, to measure the pace and see how much can be done and how much — the larger share — falls away at some point during the session.
The second reality is fixed: The Oregon constitution sets an inexorable deadline for how long lawmakers can meet. In odd-numbered years, the time limit is 160 days. The clock ticks 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It includes Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, and any other factor.
Keep moving - or die
Rules adopted at the beginning of the session set a series of deadlines that require bills to move along the legislative assembly line, or die for the year. With each deadline, lawmakers who were saying "we'll do it" to supporters of their bills switch to "we tried."
Every few weeks, most bills will be required to jump hurdles — committee hearings, work sessions on amendments, and votes in the chamber where the bill started. The bills that pass the House or the Senate then go to the other chamber and repeat the process. A select few — usually a little over 10% — then go to the governor's desk to become law.
Wednesday is the quarterly economic forecast that will give lawmakers a better idea of how much money is coming in and out of state coffers to fund programs and projects. For the rest of the session, deadlines pop up with regularity:
After bills are introduced, the presiding officers — House Speaker and Senate President — assign bills to committees.
The Senate has 12 committees, while the House has 15. Most are "policy committees" such as Senate Judiciary or House Education. They must adhere to a strict calendar of deadlines. For a large number of bills, being assigned to a committee is the end of the journey. They sit undisturbed until the session ends in June.
Chairs of committees can call public hearings on bills, which are often the most high profile moment for legislation, with proponents and opponents testifying to the panels. But a hearing doesn't necessarily mean a bill is on the legislative front burner. The true test begins on St. Patrick's Day.
To the floor or out the door
March 17 on the official calendar of the Legislature is marked as "Deadline Post Work Session — bills in policy committees have to have a "work session" scheduled by the chair. It's a date on which a bill can be amended and approved to go to the floor of the chamber where it was introduced, the Senate or House. The actual work session has to be held by April 4. Bills in policy committees that don't go to the floor are done for the year.
Legislation that passes on the floor of the chamber then is sent to the other chamber, House bills to the Senate, Senate bills to the House. Then they're assigned to committees and can have the same set of fate as in the first chamber: Some bills just sit. Some have hearings.
But another reality check comes May 5, when bills must be scheduled for a work session in the second chamber's committee.
On May 17, the Legislature is briefed on another quarterly economic report. These are the final numbers that show the likely level of revenue the state will have to fund the government for the 2023-24 budget cycle.
Work sessions in the second chamber must be held no later than two days afterwards, on May 19. Bills either advance to the floor of the second chamber or end up in the dead bin.
The Legislature has until June 25 to wrap things up. Bills that pass both chambers go to Kotek to sign, veto or, in the case of financial bills, strike out "line item" spending.
But there are several exceptions to the rules.
The June 25 deadline adjourning the Legislature is a solid wall that no legislative sleight-of-hand can get around. But up until that point, exceptions, loopholes and tricks are part of the legislative game.
Bills that go to a few committees are exempt from the deadlines. The Rules Committee in both chambers can act right up to the final day. There are 11 joint committees with members of both the House and Senate. They too can skirt the usual timetable.
The most powerful spot on the list is the Joint Committee on Ways & Means, the panel that writes and approves the state budget that will go to each chamber for a final vote. There are seven subcommittees which work on slices of the doling out of dollars.
Some are special issues for 2023, such as the Joint Committee on Semiconductors, which is trying to boost — or salvage — the state's place in manufacturing the key computer components. There's a joint panel on the Interstate 5 Bridge, which is wrangling over plans for a new span over the Columbia River from Portland to Vancouver in Washington state.
Some bills that are left for dead can be miraculously resurrected using what is called a "gut and stuff." House and Senate leaders ensure that several bills are introduced each session that call for studies of various topics. Their real role is to serve as vessels for last-minute attempts to pass legislation that had fallen by the wayside.
The bills, which have passed through the various deadlines, go to a work session of one of the committees without a deadline and are "gutted" (the original "study" removed from the bill language). They are then "stuffed" with the wording of the dead bill and are back in play if there are enough votes in the committee to pull the trick. They can then go to the floor of the chambers for an up or down vote.
With Kotek being a Democrat and both chambers held by the party as well, the veto of legislation is rare. Line items vetoes can be tempting ways for governors to show their power, even to allies. But by the Fourth of July, the business of the 2023 session will be done. Barring a special session called by the governor or legislative leaders, lawmakers won't return to the Capitol until the 35-day even-year short session is called to order in January 2024.
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