Oregon Democrats decry legislative slowdown during COVID

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon’s House of Representatives returned to the Capitol this week after floor sessions had been cancelled due to multiple COVID-19 cases, but Republicans continue to use a stalling tactic that Democrats say is putting lawmakers’ health at risk.

It’s the latest partisan flashpoint in the state where Democrats hold strong majorities in both the House and Senate but where the GOP has often used extreme means to thwart legislation it doesn’t like.

For the past two years, Republican state senators staged walkouts to deny the chamber a quorum. But this year Democrats say a slow-down strategy playing out in the House is dangerous because it prolongs people’s possible exposure to COVID-19.

On Tuesday and Wednesday GOP lawmakers in Salem again refused to suspend the full reading of proposed bills aloud before a final vote — a maneuver that could add hours to the passage of even simple bipartisan legislation.

The minority party says the slow down is one of their only hopes of influencing legislation they feel is controversial and “moving through committees despite substantial opposition and without a willingness to compromise or work to build bipartisan support.”

“As long as the building is closed to the public and deeply controversial legislation continues to be fast-tracked in committees, we will continue to depend on the Constitution, to remind the supermajority we should not operate like it’s business as usual while the public is shut out,” House Minority Republican Leader Christine Drazan, a Canby Republican, said in a letter to the House Speaker last week.

In years past, both parties have agreed to skip bill-reading — but the action requires two-thirds approval.

During the first floor session of the week, nearly the entire day — about five hours and 45 minutes — was spent reading a portion of one proposed bill.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, estimates that reading the rest of the bill, along with another one on the agenda, will take about eight hours.

Currently, there are more than 40 measures that require a third reading and await a final vote in the House. To ease the strain on the clerk, who typically must read the bills aloud, a computer program is being used to read the bills to lawmakers.

The House already is dealing with a backlog of proposed bills after floor sessions last week and on Monday were cancelled due to two individuals who tested positive for COVID-19.

“We have been stuck in limbo, reading bills for hours due to Republican inflexibility on suspending rules,” said Rep. Maxine Dexter, a Portland Democrat

Republicans on Wednesday again refused to back down on the full reading of all proposed bills leading to chilly reactions from Democrats, who called the GOP’s actions “reckless and pointless,” “incredibly disappointing” and threatening to lawmakers’ health.

Rep. Julie Fahey, a Democrat who represents West Eugene and Junction City, said reading bills in full could have “very real consequences” when it comes COVID-19. Fahey is among many of the lawmakers who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This is not a game,” Fahey tweeted Tuesday.

In an attempt to decrease the COVID-19 risk, lawmakers are working in their Capitol offices as the bills are read and return to the floor for discussions and voting.

Last week, prior to the confirmed COVID-19 cases, Drazan sent a letter to Kotek with a list of demands in order to end the Republican’s slow-down tactics. Among them were for the House not to exceed a regular full-time schedule for session days and only advance budgets and legislation which have bipartisan consensus support.

Democrats have dismissed the demands as unreasonable and have also noted that nearly 90% of the bills on the third reading list came out of committee unanimously and many are bipartisan.

Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.