Around Oregon

In a departure from last year, Oregon Legislature wraps up session in high spirits

Oregon lawmakers headed home three days earlier than required on Thursday night, ending a surprisingly bipartisan session that saw them invest hundreds of millions of dollars in housing, recriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs and cap campaign contributions.

“We took advantage of the short session to tackle the biggest challenges facing Oregon, including some things outside spectators didn’t think we had the guts to take on,” said Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, as he delivered the House’s sine die resolution shortly after 8 p.m. 

The five-week session, which saw Democrats and Republicans come together to pass bipartisan bills, was a departure from the vitriol that defined the 2023 session, when Senate Republicans walked out for six weeks and ground the Legislature to a halt.

Leading up to this session, lawmakers and observers didn’t know whether Republicans would even allow it happen: Just days before lawmakers started work, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that 10 Republican senators – a third of the Senate – were ineligible to run for reelection, and Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, warned that the ruling would mean majority Democrats would have to come up with incentives for Republicans to attend sessions. 

Knopp credited the 2023 walkout for the bipartisan nature of the 2024 session, saying he and other senators paid a price and would do it again.

“I think that they recognized each day we could have walked out, said ‘See you Sunday,’ and we’ll determine what’s going to pass and what’s not going to pass,” Knopp said. “We didn’t have to do that.”

In the House, incendiary comments made by two Republican lawmakers about LGBTQ+ people, atheists and Muslims, and Democrats’ decision to choose their next speaker in a closed-door meeting before the session began, cast a pallor over the early days. On Thursday, Rep. Tom Andersen, D-Salem, joined a small group of advocates at a press conference outside the Capitol condemning those Republicans, while a caravan of timber trucks circled the Capitol, blaring horns to protest a forest conservation plan

Inside the Capitol, lawmakers were in good spirits as they pushed through a series of final bills and tried to fill their sine die bingo cards over the unending drone of construction equipment from an ongoing nearly $600 million construction project meant to better prepare the building for earthquakes. Senators and staff spent the last week huddled in blankets, coats and gloves after construction knocked out the heat to the chamber. Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, a Beaverton Democrat who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, surprised committee members with fuzzy blue blankets during their last meeting on Thursday, prompting Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, to joke that they could have used the gift two days earlier. 

The biggest issues of the session were resolved in a bipartisan manner, though not without plenty of debate. Under the threat of ballot measures, Democrats and Republicans came together to enact campaign finance limits and recriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs. Their response to the state’s addiction crisis includes $211 million for treatment, as part of new programs to allow people to go through treatment and avoid jail time or a criminal record.

Lawmakers also approved $376 million for infrastructure and incentives to build houses and gave cities the option to more easily add new land to build housing. They gave Oregonians the right to repair their own electronic equipment and directed the Oregon Treasury to divest from companies that make their money from coal production. 

Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, on the last day of the Oregon session on Thursday, March 7, 2024. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Change of leadership

In a final act, the House elected Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, as its next speaker, as Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, stepped down to focus on his campaign for attorney general. In his final speech to the House, Rayfield recalled a road trip with his father in a borrowed car.

“After a decade of work in this building, a decade that went by in a blink, I hope that I left this Legislature, this state, better than when I found it, and with some gas left in the tank,” Rayfield said. 

Fahey said she’s ready to start laying the groundwork for next year’s session – maybe after taking a weekend off. Lawmakers will have to pass a transportation funding package for the next decade and continue to work on the state’s housing crisis. 

“We are not here to make lobbyists happy, and we are definitely not here for the fame and fortune,” Fahey said. “We are here because it is our job to make people’s lives better, every single day.” 

Lawmakers will be back in the Capitol a few more times for interim committee meetings and for senators to confirm Gov. Tina Kotek’s appointments to boards and state agencies, but Thursday was the final time several lawmakers will vote on bills. 

Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene and the House’s speaker pro tem, is retiring after 20 years in the House. Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, is ending his career after 15 years split between the House and Senate. 

Dembrow said he was leaving with memories of accomplishments and difficult situations. “Fortunately, the older you get, the more you forget. I’m looking forward to forgetting them all,” Dembrow said.

Four Republican senators, including Knopp, the Senate minority leader, are leaving the chamber against their will because they participated in the 2023 walkout. Two others were disqualified and chose to retire. 

Two House Democrats, Janelle Bynum of Clackamas and Maxine Dexter of Portland, hope to trade Salem for Washington, D.C., and are running for Congress. 

Rayfield, D-Corvallis, can’t return to the House, though Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, and Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, could finish their four-year terms if they don’t succeed in their bids for treasurer and secretary of state. 

And other representatives facing tough primary or general elections are leaving the Capitol without knowing whether they’ll be back. That includes Rep. James Hieb, a Canby Republican who learned this week that former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan plans to challenge him in the primary, and House Republican Leader Jeff Helfrich, who represents a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans. 

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, who is retiring after nearly 40 years in politics, carried the sine die resolution, relishing – often in jest – that the final bill of his legislative career cannot fail as he plans to retire from the Senate.

“I will not apologize for this bill,” he said, as his fellow senators chuckled.

He joked that he didn’t make any compromises or deals to get the bill out of committee, and no lobbyists watered it down. And he said he’s confident no one can send it back to committee.

“It’s gone too far for all of that now,” he said, as his wife Margaret sat next to him. “This will be my last carry ever, my personal sine die.”

Reporter Ben Botkin contributed to this story.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact [email protected].

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