Kotek Holvey

Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland and Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, speak to reporters during last year’s session.

The Oregon Legislature returned to the Capitol on Monday amid a raging pandemic that has the Salem area under an “Extreme Risk” list for COVID-19 infections.

The 60-member House and 30-member Senate wore face masks and maintained 6 feet of separation while meeting in the chambers in the 1938 art deco Capitol. The agenda was to swear-in members, elect leaders and set rules for the session. The session won’t officially get underway until Jan. 19.

The rules turned out to be the main sticking point.

With majorities in both the House and Senate, Democrats pushed to begin the session on time. They argued that the long list of crises — COVID-19, unemployment, recovery from the massive wildfires, police reform and equity issues — was too pressing to delay. Lawmakers would use a mix of virtual meetings and hearings, coming to Salem only for final votes on bills.

“Physical presence is not absolutely crucial,” to have public input, said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene.

Democrats noted the rules include a provision allowing the public into the Capitol when the infection rates drop to safe levels. Marion County, which includes Salem, would have to move into the “Low Risk” category, the bottom of the state’s four tiers of risk level. The county is currently in the “Extreme Risk” list, the highest tier. Infection rates skyrocketed in Oregon between September and today, making the threshold for reopening unknown, but distant.

The virus has killed more than 1,600 people in the state out of 126,607 cases of the infection. Nationwide there are over 375,000 dead and over two million killed around the world.

Republicans argued that public hearings in the Capitol were necessary to hear from all constituents, not just those proficient with Zoom meetings.

Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, suggested it would be best to move the session start date from January to April, with lawmakers meeting into the summer. By spring, lawmakers could be inoculated with vaccines and the virus would hopefully be tamped down from its current spike. Public hearings might be a reachable goal.

“Let’s delay the whole session,” Post said. “Lets just put this thing off.”

In the meantime, the Legislature’s Emergency Board, a large committee of top legislators from both chambers and both parties, could deal with anything that needed immediate attention.

Along a party-line vote, the rules were adopted. Democrats also pushed through a rule to fine members $500 per day for any unexcused absences. It was aimed at the kind of Republican walk-out that killed the 2020 session over a carbon cap bill.

Despite a bruising national election, the partisan split in the Legislature barely budged from the 2018 results.

Democrats lost one seat in the House, but still have a 37-23 edge over Republicans. The super-majority of 60% of the seats allows Democrats to pass taxes and other financial bills without GOP votes.

The Senate retained its 18-12 Democratic super-majority, though one Republican seat is currently vacant and will be filled by appointment soon.

Among the new lawmakers were winners of races that flipped districts from one party to another.

Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend, is the first Democrat in a decade to represent House District 54. Republicans had held the seat in five straight elections despite an ever-growing voter registration edge for Democrats. The streak finally ended in November when Kropf defeated Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend.

Underlining the importance of the Democratic foothold east of the Cascades, Kropf, 50, was given the plum assignment of vice-chair of the House Committee on Economic Recovery and Prosperity. Freshmen rarely are assigned a ranking position on committees. The panel will be the main House funnel for recovery from COVID-19 and wildfires that burned over 1 million acres.

Kropf said he got a firsthand preview of the tasks ahead when he drove over the Cascades from Bend. The route to Salem took him past scorched earth and some of the 4,000 homes that were destroyed statewide. He arrived at an empty, locked-down Capitol, which has been closed since March due to COVID-19. Inside were legislators, a skeleton staff, police and journalists.

“It showed how much work we have to do to get the state to bounce back,” Kropf said in an interview. “We have to make sure everyone gets healthy.”

Kropf said the prosperity part of the committee name means getting businesses back on their feet after nearly a year of on-and-off restrictions. Fixing the hobbled unemployment benefits system and getting children back to classrooms are also priorities.

On the other side of the political aisle is new Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Astoria. She won the north coastal House District 32, last held by Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, D-Astoria, who did not run for re-election. Weber, the former mayor of Tillamook, defeated Democratic candidate Debbie Boothe-Schmidt, capturing the coastal district for the GOP.

When her name was read in the first roll call, a happy Weber answered, “I’m here!”

In an interview during the lunch break of her first day in office, Weber said learning the ways of the Legislature was “challenging but exciting.”

Weber said she supported Post’s idea of delaying the session until spring and continue through summer.

“There’s nothing so earth shattering that we need to do right away,” she said.

Weber said she hoped that lawmakers won’t depend on virtual public hearings for the entire session.

“When we went to online learning in Tillamook County, we lost a lot of kids,” she said. “Not everyone has access to the internet. I think if public hearings are all online, we’ll have the same problem. People without access to the internet won’t be able to testify. That doesn’t sound like government ‘by the people and for the people,’” she said.

Weber, 74, is also among a significant number of legislators who because of their age are in at-risk categories for severe illness or death if they become infected with COVID-19. No Oregon legislator was infected during three short special sessions at the Capitol during the pandemic. But the longer regular session will mean more exposure.

Nationwide, 138 state lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19 and seven have died through last Friday, according to a list compiled the political website Ballotpedia.

Weber said she plans to introduce legislation to improve broadband internet service, and overhaul the Employment Department so that future logjams of benefits won’t happen again.

One of the chores for the Legislature is redrawing the political map of the state by reapportioning districts based on the 2020 Census. All House members and half of the Senate will be running in newly refigured districts in 2022. The other 15 senators who won their seats in 2020 will have new districts, but don’t face voters again until 2024.

The House activity on Monday began under the gavel of its senior member, Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, who was elected in November to his 10th two-year term.

Smith, whose district includes all of Morrow, Union and Wallowa counties, as well as part of Umatilla County, began with a instructional fable of two mice who fell into a bucket of cream. One swam a bit and then gave up and drowned. The other swam and swam until the cream turned into butter and it could walk out of the bucket.

“May we be like that second mouse,” Smith said. “May we never give up.”

Smith said he hoped the Legislature would come together to deal with the challenges facing the state.

“May we do it with dignity, with compassion and with an eye to our collective future.”

As expected, Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, won a fifth two-year term as Speaker of the House. Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was re-elected as Senate President for a record 10th time, a spot he has held for most of the past 20 years.

With the organizational business done, the House started to introduce the over 1,000 new bills and resolutions. A clerk read the titles.

First up: “House Concurrent Resolution 1, naming the onion as the official state vegetable.”

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