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Oregon lawmakers rush to the end of the legislative session

The Oregon Legislature’s 2021 session is drawing to a close, and it’s been an eventful five months, with a slow start but then a lot of activity: on pandemic response, policing, gun laws and much more. Democratic lawmakers, who hold sizable majorities, will also be leaving some of the priorities undone. OPB political reporter Sam Stites gives us an overview of the bills that passed, and a preview of the final weeks of the session.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Oregon Legislature’s 2021 session is drawing to a close. It has been an eventful five months with a slow start, but then a lot of activity on pandemic response, policing, gun laws and a lot more. Democratic lawmakers who hold sizable majorities have not been able to pass all of their priorities. We’re going to get an overview now of the bills that have become law and a preview of the final 10 days of the session. Sam Sites has been covering the legislature for OPB, and he joins me now in the studio! It’s amazing to say that, but for the very first time since March of 2020, there is a guest in front of me. Sam, it’s great to have you here.

Sam Sites: Great to be here. Dave! Thanks so much for having me.

Dave Miller: So the early weeks or maybe even months of this legislative session were marked by Republican attempts to delay the process of lawmaking. What were they doing?

Sam Sites: Yeah, so that really centered around the third reading of bills, which is when bills are voted on. And that didn’t really start to pick up until about the second week of March. That’s when we saw House Republicans engage in these sort of delay tactics where they were refusing to allow the body to suspend rules that would allow them to not have to read the entire bill, front to back. Some of these bills are up to 100 pages long. It’s small technical fixes of state law often require lots of legalese. So, you know, a relatively minor change could be a couple hours worth of reading. So this really slowed things down to a trickle that lasted until about the second week of april when Democratic and Republican leadership sat down and they struck a deal. The deal gave Republicans another seat on this really important redistricting committee. It was seen as a pretty astute move by Republicans, but also not a bad deal for Democrats who kind of have this backstop that if they aren’t able to get the redistricting done, they’re drawing the maps, it falls to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

Dave Miller: Pandemic response was near the top or at the top of lawmakers’ agendas at the beginning of session. What did they end up actually passing?

Sam Sites: So I think a lot of this had to deal with the big lift was housing, right? I think that the housing crisis that we’ve seen and homelessness was only exacerbated in many ways by the pandemic. I think lawmakers were really concerned about more folks being driven into homelessness. You know, because we’re already seeing stress on the systems that provide those services, so ensuring that folks could have time to pay past due rent, that was a high priority. They extended that, the moratorium on evictions, excuse me, a couple times, most recently through June 30th. We’re already hearing from folks in the housing world, in the legal community that that might not be enough. And they’re looking at a bill right now, actually, that might come up today, that would provide safe harbor for folks who are struggling to pay rent. They’re trying to get out the door about $500 million worth of rental assistance and assistance to landlords who haven’t been made whole.

Dave Miller: Another big issue going into the session and a kind of a carryover from special sessions over the summer was police oversight and reform bills. What did lawmakers do this long session?

Sam Sites: Absolutely. Great question, potentially one of the most interesting things that has happened in terms of when you look at the protests that have taken place over the past year, one of them was House Bill 3164 that modifies the crime of interfering with a police officer, basically making it so that law enforcement can’t arrest you for passive resistance. Another really interesting one was just signed by Governor Kate Brown this week that will require police officers to train in airway and circulatory anatomy. That was huge. Obviously, as we think back to the video that we saw of George Floyd’s murder and the Derek Chauvin trial, kind of a direct result of that. Police officers are also now required to have identifying information on their uniforms. Another House bill modified the threshold for a police officer’s duty to report behavior they know or reasonably should know to be misconduct to a superior or to the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training within 72 hours. Another one creates a statewide background check process for hiring new police officers requiring agencies to report any racist behavior or social media posts or things like that. A lot of these have received signatures just this week. So I think, as a whole, what lawmakers were pushing for in terms of this, these priorities got done.

Dave Miller: School funding turned into an unusual debate with Republicans asking for more K-12 money than Democrats. Where did that end up?

Sam Sites: So it all kind of started with, as our colleague, Dirk VanderHart put it, this blistering rebuke that Governor Brown gave to lawmakers in a letter about a month ago. And in that she said that, she suggested that a portion of the budget that they wanted, could potentially be illegal and plans to increase spending did not do enough for students who had historically been left behind. Republicans were also crying foul. They said that their proposal to fund schools to the tune of 9.6 billion was better. I think Representative Greg Smith said last week that, coming out of the pandemic, having a good schools budget isn’t good enough. And I think that Democrats, their argument back to that was that this needs to be sustainable. We’re flush with federal cash. The state’s economic forecasts are looking really good, but that might not always be the case. And they need to plan for the future and have budgets that are sustainable. Whether or not 9.3 billion will result in cuts, I think is kind of still yet to be seen. According to the legislative fiscal office, school districts would only need about 9 billion to maintain current service levels. Either way, 9.3 billion is a record allotment for Oregon schools.

Dave Miller: One of the bills that drew the most obvious Republican outrage had to do with gun laws. There was a debate that led to calls for another Republican walkout, although that didn’t quite happen. That bill did end up passing and it was signed by the governor into law at the beginning of this month.What will Senate Bill 554 do?

Sam Sites: Yes. So what that bill does is it will require Oregonians to secure their firearms, whether that’s a trigger lock or cable lock, keeping them in a safe or in a locked room when they’re not in use. It will also make it so that you have to report when you lose or have a firearm stolen, under penalty of a $1000 fine. It also could open up people to litigation if their unsecured firearm is used to inflict harm on someone else. So I think we’re gonna be the 11th state to enact such a law. They were also able to push through restrictions on carrying firearms in the capital and in the Portland Airport. So definitely major changes on the rise and for Oregon, in terms of gun laws,

Dave Miller: We’re talking right now about Oregon’s 2021 legislative session which is going to wrap up in about 10 days. We’ve been talking about bills that became law, but the session was also really notable for two high profile departures. Democratic Representative Diego Hernandez resigned amidst allegations of sexual harassment. He resigned before he might have been expelled by his fellow lawmakers. Mike Nearman, Republican Representative, was expelled as we talked about a lot over the last week for letting people into the closed capital. How much did those two departures, one, a resignation, one, an expulsion, affect the work, the life of lawmakers?

Sam Sites: Yeah, absolutely. I think obviously those two things have had lingering effects on folks in the House, specifically. Hernandez was replaced fairly quickly once he resigned. And while that situation lingered, starting with the revelation of his behavior last year and ending with his resignation in mid March, I feel like lawmakers were able to move on from that pretty quickly. Multnoman County Commissioners replaced him with David Douglas school board member Andrea Valderrama. She’s come in and made an impact, especially in terms of priorities of the BIPOC caucus for some of the things that they’ve been working on. Nearman, I think, was a little bit different because although there were safety and harassment concerns around Hernandez’s situation, he didn’t try to let armed protesters into the capital like Nearman did. So I think there was a bit of a bigger sense of betrayal around Nearman’s actions, which obviously crossed party lines, considering it was a unanimous decision to expel him last week, besides his lone no vote. I think it was also just a really heavy thing to have to do, to kick your colleague out of the body. I don’t think the weight of that moment was really lost on anybody. I definitely think that the dust hasn’t quite settled and it continues to loom as criminal charges and the legal side of this continues to play out.

Dave Miller: Let’s turn to promises or priorities that seem to have fallen by the wayside. What happened with Measure 11 reform? This is the state’s law about mandatory minimum sentences, for basically, for violent crimes.

Sam Sites: Yeah, absolutely. And that was passed by voters back in 1994 and has kind of been a hot button issue of late all across the country. Conrad Wilson, our colleague, has been all over this for us. It was sounding like Senator Floyd Brzezinski, who’s kind of the judicial reform guru of sorts, he was hopeful that Senate Bill 401, reforming our mandatory sentencing laws was gonna pass, hopefully this year. I think two weeks ago, he was kind of saying it was sitting in committee on life support. But last week he finally waved that white flag saying this isn’t gonna happen this year. He kind of faced a bit of an uphill battle trying to lobby the association that represents Oregon’s 36 district attorneys. I think he ran into some problems not knowing exactly where to go, because there’s 36 of them and they all are independently elected and all have different opinions on this. So I think that he’s definitely committed to this, I believe, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him continue that next year or in following sessions.

Dave Miller: Is it fair to put some police reforms in this category as well, of big ideas or hopes that are not going to get to the finish line in this session?

Sam Sites: Yeah, I feel like most of the major things that at least the BIPOC caucus, who led a lot of this work, I think they got a lot of that done, but there were some outliers, obviously, that didn’t see movement. The biggest one, for example, I would say would be the effort to try and look at ending or at least curbing qualified immunity. That’s the law that says police officers can’t be sued for actions they have taken in the line of duty. That didn’t make it, but if I had to guess that’s not the last we’ll hear of that fight.

Dave Miller: So what things are still on lawmakers plates as we head to June 28?

Sam Sites: Lots of stuff. Obviously budget bills being kind of the most omnipresent issue right now. Most have made their way through at least one chamber, but lots still to be done on the budget. The state really avoided cuts, thanks to not only having all this federal aid, but I think one of the state economists said that Oregon has cash coming out of its ears. Each new economic forecast, over the past six months or so, a year of just kind of kept pouring on the good news that the state is rebounding far better than expected. The other big thing is wildfire obviously, and you know, something that has affected us all. Lawmakers have left us to the end of the session for reasons we’re not entirely sure about. I’ve heard some folks say that this has to do with keeping Republicans in the building. I don’t know if that’s really true, but there are some funds for rural communities to start projects that will help them adapt to wildfire, mitigate smoke, all those good things we heard out of the Governor’s Council on Wildfire a couple years ago. There’s also some sweeteners in there for rural counties in terms of allowing some more logging and things of that nature. This basically was the same bill we saw die last year due to the Republican walkouts. So I think there’s wide appeal from all corners of the state to get that passed. I don’t think we can go another fire season without starting this work. But I know that shakeups within the Department of Forestry in terms of leadership were heavy on the minds of lawmakers who were unsure whether they wanted to make big investments in that agency.

Dave Miller: What do you think you’re going to most remember from this session?

Sam Sites: Yeah, I think you’ll get different responses from different reporters. But for me, a lot of my reporting has led me to looking at the social equity type bills that have come through and things like that. You’ve got the Crown’s Act, which says you can’t discriminate based on someone’s hair, particularly as it relates to K-12 schools and athletics and those types of things. That’s something that Senator Lew Frederick of North Portland has been trying to do for years. He and Happy Valley Rep Janelle Bynum were able to get that passed this year. You’ve got a bill that makes it so people convicted of bias crimes on state lands can’t recreate in Oregon State Parks or on state waters for up to five years. That’s an attempt to protect BIPOC communities’ access to recreation in Oregon. There the Legislature also separated the definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity so that gender identity can now be protected by anti-discrimination laws. Just a lot of these really big things that I think reflect a lot of the conversations that Oregonians are having right now in trying to bring marginalized communities into the fold of protecting everybody.

Dave Miller: Sam Sites, thanks very much for coming in.

Sam Sites: Thanks so much, Dave.

Dave Miller: Sam Sites is a political reporter for OPB. Coming up after a break, we’re going to hear about the likely moratorium on short term rental licenses in Clatsop County and the larger context of housing on the North Coast.

Dave Miller: Last week, a six-month old video surfaced publicly. It shows Republican State Representative Mike Nearman telling people his plan for how he would let them into an Oregon Capitol that was closed to the public because of Covid. He tried to put a veneer of plausible deniability in his remarks, but that didn’t work.

Mike Nearman (audio recording): “We’re talking about setting up operation “Hall Pass”, which I don’t know anything about. And if you accuse me of knowing something about it, I’ll deny it. But there would be some person’s cell phone, which might be (971)2**-**** , but that is just random numbers that I speed up. That’s not anybody’s actual cell phone. And if you say ‘I’m at the west entrance’ during the session and text that number, somebody might exit that door while you’re standing there. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t have anything to do with that. And if I did, I wouldn’t say that I did.”

Miller: Five days later, Nearman did exactly what he suggested he would do. He opened a side door of the State Capitol and let protesters in. Some clashed with police and allegedly pepper sprayed them. Nearman has already been facing criminal charges for his actions, but the new video was the final straw for fellow republicans in the State House.

On Monday, the entire caucus called on him to resign. Christine Drazan is the leader of the caucus, she’s a Republican Representative from Canby and the House minority leader. I talked to her earlier this morning. I asked her what went through her mind when she saw the video.

Christine Drazan: I was just surprised. I was disappointed and surprised.

Miller: Were you aware of that video before it became publicly available?

Drazan: Oh no, no. I saw the video when everybody else saw it.

Miller: And when you say surprised, what do you mean?

Drazan: Well, I have been working with Representative Nearman since I’ve been in the building, which granted, hasn’t been very long, but he’s a colleague. And when I got elected in 2019, he was here. I did not believe that he would do something like that on purpose.

Miller: That’s an important point. Until you saw that video, you thought it was a mistake or inadvertent.

Drazan: Yeah. I thought that it was inadvertent and there was an error in judgment. That he went out the door and did not foresee what would happen next.

Miller: He held the door open for protesters who walked in after him, and then seemingly on video told other people about the door. Then there was a rush through that door. Even before we had the most recent video, many other people have come to the conclusion that he did this on purpose.

Drazan: Well, I appreciate [that] many other people might have come to that conclusion. I guess I was just speaking for myself and not the global universe of people that might have looked at the video and not have known Representative Nearman as a person and come to a different conclusion. You just asked me what I thought. I was telling you I did not believe that he would have done something like that on purpose. [I] know this person, I did not believe that he would do this on purpose. I was wrong.

Miller: The sense I got from you before... The last time we spoke was in January at the beginning of the legislative session. You said on this show and other places that when I asked if you would call for his resignation... I should mention Speaker Tina Kotek who, at that point, was already calling for his resignation and you said you want to let the process move forward, including the criminal justice system process. That is still in its early stages because that kind of criminal proceeding takes a while. If that was a part of your thinking, then the due process system and giving him a chance to respond, to defend himself... Why call for resignation now before the criminal charges have been adjudicated?

Drazan: From my perspective, seeing a video that clearly was a premeditated decision to let... I  should back up a little bit. I believe in protest. We all voted against the House rules that closed the building to the public at the beginning of this because of the nature of what we do here. It’s hard to get democracy done without people. In principle, I agree that public access that’s face to face as you can safely accommodate, was happening in other states. I wanted it to happen in Oregon.That doesn’t lead to a decision to indiscriminately let people into the building who are armed and are threatening legislators through their windows for the entire morning of a protest.

This is not a situation where someone said: ‘I’m going to support and encourage peaceful protest. I’m going to sneak some little old ladies in through the basement and they’re going to come to the Rotunda with signs and then they’re going to be peacefully let out by our public safety officers.’ He could have done that, and that would have been civil disobedience and I would have fully supported that. That’s not, in fact, what happened. He made a decision to intentionally come up with a plan to allow people to come into the building. He did not know how that would turn out. And he was comfortable with that.

I’m not comfortable with that. That changed my approach to this issue. I’ve been encouraging Representative Nearman to resign. I have been encouraging him to resign because of the level of exposure that he put people inside this building to. There could have easily been a death on that day. There wasn’t. I’m grateful and thankful [the] police officers managed that situation capably. They were injured in the process and all summer long.

I talked about how important it was for Portland to step in and contain the violence in Portland. That it was not okay that property was being destroyed. That people were indiscriminately burning stuff in the streets, taking over communities, making people feel less safe. Harming police officers every single day, throwing bricks. That was what my own member was comfortable allowing to happen inside the legislative body. That is different. That means that if I’m going to be consistent, if I’m going to call for accountability for protests, which in fact are not peaceful, even if the principle is right...

There’s a way to engage in support of your principles that is honorable and in fact can also affect change and not harm others. That is not what we saw inside this building with my member. I would call for the resignation of a Democrat who did the same thing if it was a different value set. If it was a different priority, if it was a different principle and this is how they acted on it, I would call for the resignation. I support the principle. He [Nearman] acted on it badly. He showed poor judgment and he did it on purpose. Now his court case is going to continue. He is going to have access to due process and he will have the opportunity in that setting to defend himself and articulate his case. And I wish him the best in that. In this case, public service is a calling, and we have got to begin to hold ourselves to a higher standard. I absolutely wish that we were not in this situation. But today I am calling on Representative Nearman to resign.

Miller: I was struck by one of the lines in the letter written by the full House Republican Caucus, obviously minus Representative Nearman, and it includes this line: “It is our belief as friends and colleagues that it is in the best interests of your caucus, your family, yourself and the state of Oregon for you to step down from office.” That’s a whole different set of entities. But you start with that. It’s in the interest of his caucus, your caucus. What effect do you think his refusal to resign has had on the Republican Caucus?

Drazan: It’s really difficult to serve in a body with people and have these times where you might disappoint each other. We’re all human beings and we all have failings and core judgment is not limited to this incident. We have these times where we recognize that even with good intentions, we sometimes make bad choices. We’re all human here.

Miller: This is not the first time that you’ve had to publicly go against members of your own party. This session after the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol, the Oregon Republican Party put out a completely incorrect statement saying that it was a so-called false flag operation intended to make Donald Trump look bad. You signed on with every single House Republican, including Representative Nearman, in calling out that statement and saying that there was no basis in fact for it. What’s it been like to be a Republican leader over the last six months?

Drazan: It’s a privilege to do the work, to stand up for voices that don’t have power in this state. I am privileged to be in a role where I can speak up for people that do not wield political power and [my work] affects their ability to support their families and have stable communities and have access to good roads and good infrastructure. As well as [giving] a sense that their values matter. That is the biggest privilege and I don’t take it lightly.

I entered this building with a set of values and a purpose to bear somebody else’s burden. I’m going to end my service, whenever that happens, with that intact.

Miller: You told the New York Times earlier this week that you don’t see much of a parallel between what happened at the Oregon Capitol on December 21st and what happened at the US Capitol on January 6th. What did you mean?

Drazan: In this case we have a Covid environment that really is this idea of single-party control, and the intense feeling from some folks in Oregon that our response or the Democrat response to Covid has not felt like it’s aligned with what they’ve done in other places. And there’s been frustration around that.

I think that’s really different from a constitutional crisis. That is the local expression of concerns around local political decision making. Conflating the two is political opportunism and has no basis in reality.

Miller: If I could just interject though, because before you were talking about how you support Representative Nearman’s idea that the Capitol should have been open. There should have been a way to provide more in-person public activity within the Capitol.

I take your point that there are differences in the motivation. But, in terms of what actually unfolded with a group of protesters, some of them armed, breaking into or coming into a closed Capitol, clashing with police, allegedly pepper spraying some of them in the case of Salem [and] later attacking journalists... Do you not see parallels between what actually unfolded in Salem and in DC?

Drazan: Let me ask you this question: Do you see parallels between that and what happened all summer long [in Portland] with the federal building and with police stations where rioters broke into public buildings and had to be forcibly removed? Through the course of their entry of those buildings, [they] caused harm to people and property.

The event where protests become violent is universally wrong. Whether it’s in a political context, inside a Capitol building, or whether or not it’s in a political context, inside a federal courthouse or a local police station. If you want to say that there are parallels there, you have to continue to expand the universe and say in what other cases have we seen protesters break into buildings and have to be repelled back in protest to an issue that they don’t agree with? Were people harmed or put in danger? I think those parallels exist in a much broader context than just the Republican side of the aisle.

Miller: I know that time is ticking. So I want to move to the coming days [ahead]. Can you remind us how the process is going to work now? It involves a special committee that you have a seat on. It’s made up of three democrats and three republicans. There also has to be a vote of the full House membership. What do the next couple of days look like?

Drazan: The committee will meet this afternoon. It will organize and it will take public testimony. The public testimony will need to be specific to the incident on December the 21st. It is not public testimony to talk about any other issue. It’s only about that matter. And after the public testimony, we will get clarification on process from parliamentarians [and] legislative council. Then at some point, a work session could be posted and at that time the matter will be taken up with a vote. Following that vote, if it’s successful, it will move to the floor within a day or two of them.

I don’t exactly know the timing for any of this. In the meantime, I am continuing to encourage Representative Nearman to seriously consider resigning.

Miller: If the committee does move forward with an expulsion vote and send that to the full House... As we’ve talked about, every House republicans signed onto the letter asking him to resign. You have renewed that call repeatedly in this conversation right now. Do you think there would be the same level of unanimity in a vote to expel, which would be a historic first in the Oregon legislature?

Drazan: I think an expulsion vote on the floor of the House would be a dramatic loss for our state. I am focused on doing everything I can to avoid the expulsion vote on the floor of the House by encouraging Representative Nearman to do the right thing and to resign from the building and give himself time to rebuild from this and focus on the issues that are ahead of him in the local courts. I am not going to commit to that because I can’t see in the future how this is all going to play out.What I do know is that we’ve called for his resignation. We have, as a caucus, united in encouraging him to do that. We think it’s the right decision and I hope that he is seriously considering it right now.

Miller: Just so I understand, when you say you’re not ready to commit now, you’re saying that based on what you know now, you’re not ready to commit to vote, to expel if it comes to that?

Drazan: No, what I’m saying is since I am so focused on encouraging him to resign, I’m going to stay there until I am at a point where there is a vote in front of me. A vote is not in front of me today, and I need to have my member know that resignation is the best path forward at this time. That needs to be the focus right now.

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