Oregon lawmakers strive for special session deal and renewed confidence


Gov. Kate Brown called lawmakers back to Salem next week to avoid a wave of deportations. Republicans, however, are reluctant to return to the State Capitol. They argued that there are more effective ways to resolve the current housing crisis in the state.

This is when the negotiation, the haggling, the sweetening of the pot begins.

But for House Republicans, there is one major complication: Can they trust House Speaker Tina Kotek to keep their word?

Oregon House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner (left) and House Speaker Tina Kotek speak on the House dais as they await confirmation of quorum on Saturday 25 September.

Sam Stites / OPB

As the oldest compound in Oregon history, Kotek has amassed immense power. She has carved out a reputation for herself as a talented negotiator and astute politician.

But when she recently reneged on a deal with Republicans to give them an equal voice in the redistribution process, her political opponents said she lost one of Salem’s most powerful currencies: the force of her word .

“Confidence is broken. We don’t trust, ”said Republican Deputy Leader Kim Wallan of Medford. “I don’t know what that means for the future, but I think everyone understands why we wouldn’t.”

Democrats balk at Kotek being the problem. They are retaliating with accusations that House Republicans have always negotiated in bad faith and are simply hanging on to Kotek’s narrative as a deal breaker to hurt his gubernatorial candidacy.

“Any attempt to score cheap political points by making this session on the Speaker of the House is simply politics at its peak,” House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner said in a statement. . “This is about following through on Oregon’s commitment to protect tenants at risk of losing their homes during the colder winter months. Hopefully lawmakers can focus on serving our constituents by showing up and doing the job rather than playing political games. “

A rare moment for Republicans

House Republicans have very little influence in the State Capitol. They are currently outnumbered by Democrats 36-22, with two vacancies on either side of the aisle.

But now, before the start of the session, it’s a rare moment when they have political influence. In order to conduct business, two-thirds of the members of each chamber must present themselves. This means that in order to pass anything in law, Democrats need certain Republicans to show up. Because of the current vacancies, that could mean three or four House Republicans have to be in Salem.

Earlier this year, Kotek struck a deal with House Republicans to give them an equal voice in the US House re-drawing process in return for their pledge to stop demanding full reading. bills before they are passed in the 2021 legislative session. The deal has helped Democrats immensely.

At the time, in April 2021, Republican lawmakers were using various legislative tools to actively slow down the legislative process. After Kotek struck a deal with the Republicans, the Democratic agenda crossed the House widely.

“It was smart and nifty to give (House Republicans) something they wanted and still have a safety net,” recently retired Democratic lawmaker Brian Clem said, a nod to the fact that if Republicans and Democrats couldn’t adopt new lines, the lawmaker would go to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat. The Congress Cards, however, wouldn’t.

Kotek’s decision to withdraw from the deal giving minority Republicans an equal voice in the state redistribution process shocked Clem. Instead, Kotek passed new political cards to benefit his party over GOP objections.

Clem still remembers the then-Gov voicemail. John Kitzhaber left on his phone when the governor thought the Salem Democrat would go back on his word during some tough vote in 2011.

Kitzhaber said, “If you do that, I’m out,” Clem recalled.

Clem said the message was clear: overtake the governor and risk losing his support for the rest of his career in the legislature.

“The motto of our company has been your word,” he said. “And if your change is completely depleted, how do you still do business?” “

To further complicate negotiations, the House has a new Republican leader, Representative Vikki Breese-Iverson, of Prineville, who was elected by his GOP colleagues earlier this week.

She is pushing for lawmakers to convene the Emergency Council, which can allocate money when the legislature is not sitting, but cannot pass policies.

“The endless process of an uncertain special session is not the solution. Let’s make Oregon a priority by speeding up relief efforts, ”she said in a statement.

Preparing for the December 13 special session and behind-the-scenes negotiations is the kind of thing that gives Senate Speaker Peter Courtney nightmares.

“I’m very worried, but I also know that since the governor called some people are working really hard, including myself to try to find a way to do it in one day,” Courtney said. “At the moment we don’t have a definitive deal, but we have certainly worked hard and are closer now than if you had called me yesterday.”

People sit outside in chairs on a gray day facing the Oregon State Capitol building for an event.

Lawmakers are returning to the state capital, appear here at a Veterans Day ceremony, for a special December 13 session.

Chris M Lehman / KLCC

Negotiations on the Senate side were less tense than on the House side. Republican Senate Leader Tim Knopp R-Bend has said he believes Courtney will honor a deal if he does one.

Yet it takes both houses for a bill to become law.

“There’s no question, I think, that in life and everything in between, the more confidence you have, the more you can do, the more you can resolve disputes,” Courtney said. “… And there is no doubt there is a lot of mistrust. And that’s the biggest thing we’re fighting now, is mistrust.

Help for tenants is a priority

The two Democratic lawmakers who debated the political part of that special session – Rep. Julie Fahey, from Eugene, and Senator Kayse Jama, from Portland – said they had tried to stay out of the political fray.

Their goal: to prevent a crisis of massive evictions which, according to tenant advocates, has been unfolding for months. For Jama and Fahey, putting the rent money back into Oregonians’ hands is the priority.

Thousands of people continue to ask for rental assistance. The agency overseeing the rental assistance program, Oregon Housing and Community Services, has temporarily closed its web portal in an effort to clear a massive backlog of more than 30,000 applications. Once they do, agency officials have said the jar of $ 289 million in federal rent assistance will disappear.

Fahey and Jama propose to put an additional $ 195 million on the table. A majority of $ 100 million will go to help state community action agencies establish a more localized network of eviction prevention services. This could include working with county courts to intercept cases, providing mediation and translation services, distributing checks in courts, and building tenant awareness.

They are also spending $ 90 million of their proposed package to replenish the state rent assistance fund. The fund was recently closed to allow the state to overcome a backlog of applications, this proposal would allow the portal to reopen in January and would also add $ 5 million to support the state’s housing and community services agency. for the costs it incurred due to the influx of applicants.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan will be to extend eviction protections to everyone currently stuck in the queue waiting to receive a check, a move Republicans deem unnecessary.

Fahey and Jama are adamant that extending protections for tenants who have asked for help is crucial in saving thousands of homeless people this winter, and they are optimistic they can push it through.

“The reality is it’s a tough time,” Jama said. “It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.

A lot could happen over the next few days, but one thing is clear: the fight over political lines is over for the next decade, but the political stripes are still evident.


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