SALEM — Lawmakers plowed through a huge backlog of bills Saturday, passing controversial legislation with little or no debate as they raced to beat a Sunday midnight deadline to adjourn.
Bills approving a Bend redevelopment project and a highway renaming effort led by a Bend veteran were unanimously approved by the Senate and go to Gov. Kate Brown to be signed into law.
The day began with the Senate roll call at 9 a.m. and ended with the House adjourning at 8:45 p.m.
The first piece of business was to kill House Bill 2020, which would cap carbon emissions and allow businesses to trade pollution credits.
Republican senators walked out June 20, denying the Senate a quorum and stalling the bill — along with about 150 other pieces of legislation. As part of the deal to bring them back, the Senate’s first vote was to send the carbon cap bill to the Senate Committee on Rules, effectively dooming it for this session. The motion passed 17-10.
The abandonment of the carbon cap legislation was criticized by some Democrats as capitulating to Republican’s political blackmail by walking out.
“I think there’s a lot of heartbreak, but today is one day, and we’ll come back and address it,” said Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who backed the carbon cap. “We have to. Our planet demands it.”
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said the walkout was a last choice option for Republicans who believed the bill would harm their districts. He said his return to the Senate on Saturday had come without any acrimony from his Democratic colleagues.
“It’s been great,” Knopp said. “I haven’t seen any outward signs of that.”
Asked if Democrats had kept their word on the deal, Knopp said, “so far.”
With the carbon cap dead and buried, senators quick-marched dozens of bills through the chamber.
Senators avoided the usual speeches that accompany final votes on controversial legislation. Bills allowing immigrants here illegally to get drivers licenses, campaign finance reform, funding for low-income aid programs, free postage for mail-in ballots and strengthening prohibitions on sexual harassment in the Capitol passed, most often with no comment from advocates or opponents. The House approved a bill that would require a special election Jan. 21 if a $2 billion tax package approved this session is challenged by a referendum.
The pace was so fast that the Legislature’s bill-tracking website for much of the day lagged behind the votes. At one point, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, had called for a vote on an item — but stopped when the senator who was presenting the bill said he had read the wrong legislation. Flummoxed with how to fix the parliamentary problem, Courtney improvised.
“I’d like unanimous consent to redo what we just did,” he said.
Rules that usually move bills through the Legislature at a laborious pace with required waiting periods were suspended to allow immediate action. Several bills from the House were referred to the Senate Committee on Rules, which met during a break in the floor session to hold quick public hearings, approve the legislation, then send it back to the Senate floor for a vote later.
Bills sponsored by Bend-area lawmakers were among those receiving the hurry-up treatment.
The Senate approved House Bill 3450 by a vote of 27-0 to allow Bend to redevelop older commercial strips, such as a portion of the Third Street, into a hybrid of buildings with businesses on the ground floor and apartments on floors above. The bill goes to Brown for her signature. It’s chief sponsor is Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, with Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, as a supporting sponsor.
The bill passed the House on June 20 on a 56-1 vote. It then went to the Senate where the walkout blocked further action.
On Saturday, the bill was given a first reading and was sent to the rules committee, which had a public hearing with one witness — Erik Kancler, the lobbyist for the city of Bend.
Sensing the mood of the panel, Kancler started his presentation by promising to be brief. He listed a spectrum of advocates in the business and environmental communities.
“We seem to have hit a sweet spot with this,” Kancler said. “The purpose is really to take our outmoded, auto-oriented strip malls along our commercial corridors and figure out how, without changing the underlying commercial zoning, we could move a mix of high density mixed-use housing into a transit-oriented development.”
The bill does not specifically name Bend but has population, location and other requirements that make Bend the only city to fit the requirements.
“Why don’t we just say the city of Bend?” asked Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, a committee member.
Sen. Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, the committee chair, was suffering through a head cold and couldn’t quickly supply a succinct explanation.
“I think there is some kind of weird constitutional provision,” Burdick said.
A legislative counsel jumped in and said the method is used because of a much-disregarded prohibition against bills beneficial to specific localities.
The bill started moving at 9 a.m., with several stops before its passage at 8:30 p.m.
Next up was House Bill 3452, which would name the 471-mile portion of U.S. Highway 26 as the “POW/MIA Memorial Highway” to honor Oregon’s 789 prisoners of war and 1,000 missing in action and presumed dead from America’s wars and conflicts. It passed the Senate unanimously and goes to Brown to become law.
The bill was requested by former Army Lt. Col. Dick Tobiason, of Bend, and the Bend Heroes Foundation. The chief co-sponors include Zika, Knopp and Helt. At a short public hearing, the Senate Committee on Rules heard testimony from Richard Keebler, of the Oregon Veterans Motorcycle Association. He was he was pinch-hitting for Tobiason, who couldn’t get to Salem. The testimony ended with a quote from the 2nd-century Roman emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
“Poor is the nation that has no heroes. Shameful is the one that, having them, forgets.”
Three Republicans senators did not attend Saturday’s session. Rep. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, whose district includes all of Crook County and the southernmost areas of Deschutes County, was traveling and unable to attend, according to his office. Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said before the session that he would not attend either day. They were both recorded as absent.
The other missing lawmaker was Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, who was listed as excused. Before the walkout, Boquist made comments appearing to threaten Courtney and promise violence against any state police officer who would try to stop him if he left.
The Salem Reporter website reported that an attorney hired by the Legislature had recommended Boquist be barred from the Capitol because some state employees feared his presence. But the legality of the move was questioned and Senate leaders opted against a ban. Boquist was in the Capitol at one point Saturday, according to The Oregonian. But Boquist’s status as “excused” indicates an official decision or agreement that he not attend.
Lawmakers worked into the night and will return Sunday for the last day of the 2019 session. On the agenda will be final votes on the capital construction budget for higher education, which supporters of Oregon State University-Cascades hope is large enough to possibly finance $17 million of the proposed campus Student Success Center. It includes $8 million for Central Oregon Community College.
A Helt bill to increase the number of liquor licenses for on-site tasting rooms for distilleries passed unanimously and goes to the Senate.
A controversial bill allocating new circuit court judge positions will be considered. Oregon Supreme Court Justice Martha Walters requested 14 new judges in 12 counties. Deschutes County would have received one judge under the original bill, but it was amended by lawmakers so that just two judges were funded — one each in Marion and Jackson counties.
Courtney said the Senate had dealt with 105 bills in one day, more than he could remember in his legislative career that dates to 1980. But there are scores more to be dealt with Sunday and the midnight deadline upon them.
“We will finish because we have to,” he said.
But there was evidence of an end in sight. On Saturday, the Senate Committee on Rules approved Senate Concurrent Resolution 38, which will be the last item to receive a vote on the floor. It is the “Sine Die” — a Latin term that means to adjourn without a future date. When it passes, the 160-day 80th Oregon Legislative Assembly will be done. Burdick, the chair of the committee, took particular pleasure in bringing it up.
“My favorite bill,” Burdick said.
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