State Rep. Julie Fahey starts her fourth term in the Oregon House — and her first full two-year cycle as leader of its Democratic majority — at a time of transition.
But the Democrat from Eugene also says the 2023 session, which officially began its 160-day run-on Jan. 17, is an opportunity for a fresh start. Almost half the 60 members are new or starting full terms, and majority Democrats and minority Republicans agree on what the top issues are, even if they disagree on what the solutions might be.
Despite the gravity of the issues, the lawmakers also begin the session without the personal contact restrictions in the Capitol prompted by the coronavirus pandemic three years ago — and without the political tensions resulting from Republican walkouts to stall votes on Democratic priorities in 2019 and 2020.
“Both caucuses have a lot of new folks,” Fahey said Thursday, Jan. 19, at a meeting of Willamette Women Democrats at the Celebrate Conference Center in Lake Oswego. “It is a session of rebuilding after crises — one crisis after another. So, we have an opportunity to work together. This is a challenge, but we have the opportunity to do things differently.”
Of the 35 Democrats and 25 Republicans, almost half of the current House consists of newly elected members or appointees starting full terms. The total of 26 members, a little short of the modern record of 28, are almost evenly split between the parties.
(Republicans have yet to appoint someone to the vacancy created when Rep. David Brock Smith of Port Orford replaced a senator who resigned midterm.)
Oregon voters on Nov. 8 did approve a ballot measure to curb walkouts by disqualifying members from seeking reelection if they exceed 10 unexcused absences, as determined by the presiding officers.
The Capitol was closed to the public from March 18, 2020, until July 12, 2021, because of pandemic restrictions. But the Capitol office wings remained closed through Dec. 5 of last year because of an ongoing seismic reinforcement project, so most legislative committee meetings were still conducted remotely.
The 1938 portion of the Capitol was shut down June 30, though the House and Senate can continue to use their chambers, and the building will be reopened in 2025.
A new era
State political leadership has gotten younger. Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, the House speaker and Senate president, and the four party leaders in the chambers all were born after the post-World War II generation known as the baby boomers. All are relatively new in their positions except for Tim Knopp of Bend, who returns for a second two-year cycle as Senate Republican leader.
Earlier last week, Fahey, Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville and House Speaker Dan Rayfield — all of whom started in their current positions during the short 35-day session in 2022 — presented their parties’ goals for the new session.
“I spent a lot of time looking at the campaign mailers during the last six months,” Rayfield, a Democrat from Corvallis, said at the Jan. 17 presentation. “One thing you saw — and it didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or a Republican — was that every candidate was talking about housing, about behavioral health, about strengthening educational opportunity.”
Fahey added: “We are clear about what the priorities of Oregonians are. … That maybe has not been true in the past.”
Fahey added two other subjects that will draw bipartisan attention: The economy and climate change.
Oregon lawmakers want to plan how to obtain some of the federal money being made available for incentives for domestic manufacturing of semiconductors.
Fahey also said lawmakers will focus on how buildings can be made more energy efficient — a task force set up a year ago has offered its recommendations — and how carbon emissions can be captured in a process called sequestration.
Lawmakers outside Oregon’s urban areas have complained that regulation is the centerpiece of too much in state plans to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
Fahey led the House Committee on Housing in 2021 and 2022, when it and its Senate counterpart dealt with tenant protections against evictions, rental assistance and other emergency measures during the pandemic.
Though housing and homelessness are major issues this session, Fahey yielded leadership of the House panel after the 2022 session because of her new role. Fahey said the current committee, led by Democratic Rep. Maxine Dexter of Portland, will focus on how Oregon can achieve Kotek’s goal of 36,000 new housing units annually, an 80% increase from the annual average during the past five years.
Fahey said that increase also takes into account the more than 100,000 units that should have been built, but weren’t, to keep up with population growth and demand in the decade after the 2007-10 economic downturn. About half of that total, according to a report, is needed by households that earn less than 80% of the area median income.
“What we are doing right now does not work,” Fahey said. “We need to be open to other options on housing going forward. There is also not one solution for housing.”
Fahey said it’s up to the House committee to work out details, while the Senate committee continues to focus on tenant protections and short-term assistance. The 2022 Legislature did pay for work by two state agencies — Housing and Community Services, and Land Conservation and Development — to look at housing needs within Oregon’s land use planning system.
Kotek — herself a veteran of 15 years in the House, nine of them as speaker — has said that housing issues are intertwined with access to mental health and treatment for substance abuse.
“The key issue is how do we actually connect people to treatment,” Fahey said.
A new role
The majority leader traditionally leads the Rules Committee, which considers election and miscellaneous legislation. But it also acts as a traffic cop for bills late in a session, when committees other than the budget and tax panels are suspended, and leaders decide which other bills can go to votes of the full House.
Fahey likens her new role to that of an air traffic controller to keep committee leaders moving legislation according to the internal deadlines for the 160-day session.
“I was fine with flying the ‘housing’ plane for a couple of years,” she said. “Now it’s air traffic control. I’m in charge of who is flying the policy planes and making sure they land — and a lot of times, it’s making sure that the copilots are involved.”
Her definition of “copilots” covers top Republicans on the House committees and the Democrats who lead the counterpart committees in the Senate.