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When Oregon lawmakers convene next week, the public will be allowed in

The Oregon Capitol in Salem.
Sergio Olmos
The Oregon Capitol in Salem.

When Oregon lawmakers meet to take up new political maps on Monday, it will have been more than 80 weeks since members of the public were allowed into the Capitol with the Legislature in session.

During those weeks, lawmakers conducted three special sessions and a five-month “regular” session. The Capitol weathered an incursion by armed, far-right demonstrators angry because they were locked out. Lawmakers ejected one of their own for his role in planning that breach.

And now, it appears, the streak is about to end. Kind of.

With state limitations on gatherings now replaced by mask mandates, the Capitol is open. According to House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office, members of the public will be allowed in as lawmakers debate how to rejigger the state’s 90 legislative districts, and add an additional congressional district.

But as an ongoing construction project limits space in the building and COVID-19 continues a worrisome spread among unvaccinated Oregonians, the public will have less access than they would in normal times. Hearings of the House and Senate redistricting committees are expected to occur virtually, and the galleries where members of the public can typically watch the House and Senate will be closed to the public. Visitors will instead watch via closed-circuit television.

The result, it appears, will be a sort of hybrid session, with members of the public allowed to stroll underneath the Capitol’s rotunda and purchase items from the gift shop, but still kept at arm’s length from the legislative process.

“Due to construction and COVID-19 public health rules, this special session will look very different from previous ones,” Kotek’s chief of staff, Lindsey O’Brien, wrote in an email sent to House lawmakers on Monday.

In an attached document, the speaker’s office said that, since construction in the Capitol’s wings will block lawmakers from their offices, they could plan to spend time in “a local hotel, returning home if you live close by, or working remotely from another location” while waiting for a floor session.

The document also said legislative staffers are discouraged from attending, since “additional people in the building also increases the risk of COVID-19 exposure.”

But the guidance contained no notion of what would be required of the public, other than the expectation that everyone in the building be masked, in line with state regulations.

A spokesman for Senate President Peter Courtney said early Tuesday the notion of the public being allowed into the session was an “unfounded” rumor. But hours later, Courtney and Kotek’s offices jointly answered questions about the session, saying they’d consulted with public health and safety officials about how to carry it out.

“Ultimately, they believe a safe legislative session can be held by following existing OSHA and OHA rules aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks,” the response said. “While members of the public can enter the Capitol and watch the proceedings at video stations similar to the special sessions of 2020, they are encouraged to participate remotely by streaming the session proceedings online.”

State Rep. Christine Drazan, the House Republican leader, signaled Tuesday she was preparing for the session to be open.

“There have been no conversations around any changes to the current status of the building with me, and we typically discuss these things,” she said.

But Drazan also questioned how interested the public would be in a session that could involve a lot of waiting. Lawmakers must pass redistricting bills altering the state’s legislative and congressional maps by Sept. 27 if they hope to have any say in the matter. But deep disagreements — particularly over how the state should add a sixth congressional seat — could result in an impasse that prevents anything from moving.

“If it is a fair map, we’ll expedite that thing. We’ll get it out of the building,” said Drazan, referring to her party’s ability to suspend chamber rules to fast-track bills to passage. “The downside is that the congressional maps aren’t fair. [Democrats] have refused to consider changes to their gerrymandered congressional map.”

Until it reopened in July, the closure of the state Capitol — ordered by Kotek and Courtney to guard against COVID-19 —was a frequent point of tension among Republicans and Democrats.

Earlier this year, several Senate Republicans routinely voted against every bill in protest of the ongoing closure. House Republicans cited it as part of their justification for using delay tactics to slow down the pace of the 2021 session, arguing Democrats were trying to pass too many bills while the public wasn’t allowed in the building. (Oregonians were able to offer testimony remotely, rather than appearing in person.) And last December, then-state Rep. Mike Nearman plotted with supporters to allow a group of far-right demonstrators into the locked building, where they clashed physically with police.

Given that history, keeping the building open is likely to stifle some disagreement in a session that already figures to be an intensely partisan fight. It could also preempt protests like the December event that turned violent.

But the session also comes as the state has seen its worst surge of COVID-19. The current rate of new cases in Marion County and many other parts of the state would have been a justification to keep the Capitol closed earlier this year, under a framework the state was then using to determine appropriate safety measures. That system was scrapped as more Oregonians received vaccines.

The session is also likely to spur security concerns from some lawmakers, many of whom were deeply rattled when armed protesters gained access to the building in December. Lawmakers are set to convene days before a new law banning firearm possession in the Capitol is set to take effect, raising the possibility that members of the public could openly carry guns in the building.

A spokeswoman for the Oregon State Police, Capt. Stephanie Bigman, said the agency was working up a plan to meet safety needs, but could not offer details.

Members of the Legislature’s BIPOC caucus have been particularly vocal about ensuring safety in the building. State Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Clackamas Democrat and a member of the group, said the caucus planned to meet later this week to discuss the upcoming session.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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