Tumultuous Oregon legislative session ends with historic investments, historic rancor
Lawmakers returned from a record-breaking walkout that nearly derailed the session to pass hundreds more bills in a last sprint toward sine die
House representatives, staff and family applaud and take selfies after adjourning for the year. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
With a few last surprise bill deaths, an ad hoc scooter race and many, many speeches, the Oregon Legislature ended the 2023 legislative session with a few hours to spare late Sunday afternoon.
The 160-day session was marked by an historic six-week Senate Republican walkout that blocked progress on hundreds of bills with the constant banging, droning and whirring of construction equipment as lawmakers worked around a $375 million renovation of the 1938 Capitol. That construction kept the main doors to the Senate and the House closed, but they opened shortly before 4:30 p.m. Sunday so senators, representatives, staff and family could wave and take photos.
Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton joked about the view.
“It’s like the session – a bunch of caution signs,” she said.
Just two weeks ago, the idea of a celebratory end to the legislative session was almost unthinkable. Senate Republicans spent nearly six weeks in a quorum-denying walkout, protesting Democratic bills on abortion, transgender health care and guns, as well as the Legislature’s failure to follow an arcane state law requiring bill summaries be written at an eighth-grade reading level. For weeks, Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, insisted that Republicans would only return on the final day, leaving time only to pass a budget.
But on June 15, Republicans secured concessions that watered down the two most contentious measures and ended their walkout. What followed was a mad dash to the end of the session, with breaks both planned – Father’s Day and Juneteenth – and unplanned – a state government internet outage that blocked both chambers from operating most of the day Wednesday.
Dreams of ending the session on Saturday unraveled as environmental lobbyists pushed hard to block a housing and land-use bill supported by Gov. Tina Kotekto help meet her goal of building 36,000 homes per year. Most Democrats in the House opposed it over a provision allowing cities to extend urban growth boundaries to build more homes, but Republicans and Kotek cajoled a few absent Republican representatives to return to the Capitol on Saturday evening to support it.
Rep. Court Boice, a Gold Beach Republican appointed to the House in February, pumped his fist as soon as it appeared the proposal, House Bill 3414, had the votes it needed to pass.
“We haven’t had a lot of wins,” Boice explained after the vote.
But that victory was short-lived, with most Senate Democrats voting against the measure on Sunday. Democratic leaders said they planned to spend more time working on the proposal during the months before the Legislature returns for a short session in February.
“It’s a running joke that the Senate is the place where good bills go to die,” said bill supporter Sen. Mark Meek, D-Gladstone.
Early cooperation falls to partisan rancor
For many capitol observers, the 2023 legislative session felt like two separate sessions – one of bipartisan cooperation and unprecedented investments in the state, and one of crippling rancor. In January, lawmakers arrived with high hopes and grand plans to fix the state’s housing crisis and compete for billions of dollars in federal funding for the semiconductor industry.
Nearly one-third of the 90-member Legislature were new to the job, and no caucus leaders had held their jobs for more than a year. Gov. Tina Kotek was also new to her role.
The optimism and good sentiments persisted for the first few months. By mid-March, lawmakers managed to pass with broad bipartisan support a $200 million package to help homeless residents and create new goals for cities to build homes to address the root cause of the state’s housing crisis. Another bipartisan priority, a $210 million boost to the semiconductor industry, sailed through the Legislature a few weeks later.
But by late April and early May, tensions in the Capitol had reached a peak with Democrats pushing ahead with bills to guarantee access to abortion and gender-affirming care and further regulate guns. House Republicans argued vehemently against those measures during long floor debates, but Senate Republicans took a different approach: They walked out, denying the Senate a quorum for a record-breaking 43 days and blocking the Legislature from passing hundreds of bills for the duration of the six-week walkout, the longest in legislative history.
Tensions between leaders in the state Senate were evident before the session started, with Knopp responding to news that Wagner was the new president by saying Wagner was “untrustworthy, deeply partisan and doesn’t have the necessary skills to run the Senate in a bipartisan fashion.”
Wagner responded by setting up a lunch date with Knopp and planned regular meetings for the two to discuss issues over sandwiches. For the first few months of the session, things seemed to be going OK. Senate Republicans required that bills be read aloud in full, a time-consuming practice that House Republicans employed rarely, but Wagner struck an unworried tone until the walkout began.
After the session adjourned, Wagner said he hoped to spend more time building relationships with Republican senators, something he said he didn’t have much time to do over the past few months as lawmakers dove from a fierce election straight into passing policies.
“I’m really hoping that coming out of this it’s a little bit more of a jeans and T-shirt and getting out into the community and getting to know people at a human level,” he said. “I don’t know if I really had the opportunity to do that coming into session. So I’m glad that we have an interim, and we get to get around and try to really meet people as people.”
But wounds left by the GOP-led walkout remain raw. In opening remarks on Sunday, Knopp, R-Bend, publicly asked Wagner to retroactively excuse absences for Republican senators who participated in the walkout.
Voters passed Measure 113 in November, which blocks a legislator from serving another term if they have 10 or more unexcused absences in a session. Ten conservative lawmakers, all Republican except Independent Sen. Brian Boquist, hit that threshold in mid-May.
Knopp said doing so would be an “act of bipartisanship.” Wagner didn’t respond on the floor, but said later that he wouldn’t excuse absences.
“We’ve had consistent conversations about that,” Wagner said, adding voters wanted lawmakers to be punished and that Republicans knew that.
“If you look at their public statements about it, when they hit the 10 mark, I think it’s very clear that there was an expectation that those absences would not be excused,” Wagner said, referring to Republicans..
Both Lieber, the Senate majority leader, and House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said they would support efforts to change the Legislature’s two-thirds quorum requirement to prevent future walkouts. A proposed late-in-session constitutional amendment supported by a majority of Democrats didn’t receive a hearing.
Democrats celebrate political wins
House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, gave the session an A-minus grade, while Wagner said he thought the Legislature aced its final exam after a cram session at the end.
Kotek still has 30 days to veto any bills or sections of the $31.9 billion state budget lawmakers approved, and she said late last week she’s carefully reviewing legislation as it comes across her desk.
“Once the deal was reached, everything went into overdrive, and I have not had a chance to look at all the bills,” she said Thursday. “We will make sure we understand what I’m signing and there might be some things I don’t agree with, but right now. I don’t know what those are.”
Lawmakers built on the early spending on housing and semiconductors, passing stricter rent control regulations and approving $255 million in research tax credits for semiconductor companies. They inked an agreement to pay Oregon’s $1 billion share of a replacement bridge on Interstate 5 over the Columbia River, a project that could cost as much as $7.5 billion.
They opted to give voters the chance to decide in 2024 whether Oregon should adopt ranked-choice voting, which involves picking preferred candidates in order rather than just one, establish a commission to set salaries for elected officials and give the Legislature the power to impeach the governor or other statewide officials. But they failed to reach any agreement on campaign finance limits, something Kotek pledged to accomplish during her campaign for governor and that Rayfield has described as a passion his entire time in office. At the end of the day, Rayfield said, lawmakers made some progress in private meetings but didn’t have enough time or bandwidth to pass a bill.
That’s also the reason Rayfield and Lieber, the Senate majority leader, gave for why Kotek’s final housing bill failed to pass in the Senate on Sunday. House Bill 3414 would have allowed any city to add up to 150 acres for housing to its urban growth boundary, the invisible line that limits where cities can grow. Opponents feared it would carve up too much of Oregon’s land-use law, but Kotek pushed hard for its passage as part of her housing plan.
That housing bill, as well as others on rent control and a 40-cent monthly tax on telephone bills to pay for the state’s 988 crisis hotline that serves people in mental health crises, sparked intense debate in the final days of the session. But lawmakers, particularly in the House, found levity throughout.
Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, flew back and forth across a long Capitol hallway on a scooter on Saturday, handing out donuts from a Krispy Kreme bag. Not to be outdone, representatives who spent hours waiting for the Senate to finish work on Sunday commandeered Republican Chief of Staff Mark Cruz’s knee scooter for a race around the House. Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, edged out Democratic Rep. Jason Kropf of Bend, completing a loop around half the chamber in 17.34 seconds to Kropf’s 17.49 seconds.
Many lawmakers traded their typical suits and blazers for festive Hawaiian shirts and jaunty hats on Sunday. Freshman Rep. Tom Andersen, D-Salem, even figured out a way to affix a colorful bow tie to his Hawaiian shirt with his legislative pin, explaining that he’d worn a bow tie every day for 40 years and wasn’t going to let the casual sine die tradition in the Capitol break that tradition.
Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, wore a red, white and blue lei and a Statue of Liberty crown to the floor on Sunday, while Rep. Hai Pham, D-Hillsboro, donned a yellow plaid shirt on Saturday to match his toddler son, who roamed the halls dressed as Woody from Toy Story. Pham’s son was only one of the many children who filled in as assistant speaker of the House.
Like some of his colleagues on the House side, Sen. Floyd Prozanski was decked out in a colorful Hawaiian shirt. The Eugene Democrat said he’s following tradition.
“This is to say it’s time to go home and time to go on vacation,” he said, though he said he’s going back to work at his day job – not on vacation.