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Capital Chatter: Salem gears up for short session

As lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for their even-year 'short session,' they face tight deadlines.

  -  Five weeks.

That is how long the 2018 Oregon Legislature will meet, at the most.

As lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday for their even-year "short session," they face tight deadlines. By the end of next week, most committees must schedule their work sessions on bills that will move forward. Feb. 19 is the deadline for the House and Senate to pass their own bills, so the legislation can move to the other chamber for action.

• A Senate of collaboration: Journalists met Monday with Senate leaders, with House leaders and then with Gov. Kate Brown. Democrats control both chambers as well as the governorship.

In the Senate, the tone was of camaraderie, more so than in the House. That is not a surprise. The 30-member Senate is half the size of the House; its members know each other better. The Senate tends to be more experienced. Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat, understands first-hand what it's like to be in the minority party, as well as the majority. His office door is open to Republicans and Democrats alike.

Courtney, Senate Democratic Leader Ginny Burdick of Portland and Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters of Salem are longtime political associates and friends. Talking with journalists, they were on the same page Monday. They cautioned against pursuing divisive legislation and expansive agendas during the 35-day session.

• What we learned from 2016: The Legislature's first short session — in 2012 — drew praise for its civility and productivity. Fast forward to 2016. Republicans were sore from being run over by Democrats in the 2015 long session. The House led the steamrolling, but the Senate felt it, too.

Senate Republicans responded in 2016 by requiring that bills be read aloud word-for-word before being voted on. Hardly anyone listened, but it was a way for Republicans — as the minority party — to exert influence and slow action in hopes of killing bad bills. The Republicans also balked at holding evening floor sessions.

The Senate requires a 20-member quorum to conduct business. Republicans sometimes sent only two senators to the floor, which meant all 18 Democrats had to be there. And without Republicans in attendance, the Senate could not meet in the evening to catch up.

Courtney was determined to have a better atmosphere in the 2017 Legislature. He insisted that the committee chairs, mostly Democrats, work collaboratively on most issues with their vice chairs who were of the opposite party. As a result, a number of bills that passed the House on party-line votes were tempered or scuttled in the Senate.

The final legislative product was more middle-of-the-road while still innovative in such areas as pay equity and work schedules.

• How long will this short session last? The 2012 Legislature adjourned on the 34th day, the 2014 Legislature on the 33rd day and the 2016 Legislature on the 32nd day. If that trend continues, this year's session would end on the 31st day — March 7.

Ah, but here's a catch. The candidate filing deadline for the 2018 elections is Tuesday, March 6. This is the first time the filing deadline falls during the legislative session, which means incumbents will definitely know their challengers. That could be pertinent if incumbents modify their legislative positions to weaken challengers from within their own party.

• The rise, fall and rise of Clean Energy Jobs: On Monday, Senate Democratic Leader Burdick seemed clear that the Democrats' controversial Clean Energy Jobs bill was too complex for passage during the short session. President Courtney indicated it needed to be done in 2019.

That apparently did not sit well with backers.

On Wednesday, Burdick issued a press release that praised legislators and others who have been developing the carbon cap-and-trade legislation: "It's an important bill to me and our caucus. As I've said all along, a short session creates a challenging timeline for this bill, but it doesn't mean that we won't work hard to move this important issue forward. We will hold hearings on the bill the first week of session and hear from Oregonians from across the state."

• Driving into the 21st century: During the 2018 Legislature, will the Senate and House environment committees take testimony by phone or video — such as FaceTime or Skype — so people need not travel in carbon-emitting vehicles to the Oregon Capitol? Not everyone in Oregon has an electric vehicle.

Kudos to those legislators and legislative aides who commute by carpool or mass transit.

• Most of Oregon is disenfranchised: House Republican Leader Mike McLane of Powell Butte is the lone top legislative leader from outside the Willamette Valley. Talking with journalists, he raised a legitimate concern about public testimony.

At some point, the 2018 Legislature will be moving so fast that committees meet with only one hour's advance notice. That matters because committees are where bills are changed, sometimes drastically. With one-hour notice, people from Portland, Eugene and Salem might still arrive in time to testify. But most of Oregon — including most areas represented by Republican — is disenfranchised. McLane pointed that constituents in his Central Oregon district cannot drive across the Santiam Pass to the Capitol in one hour.

Video and phone testimony would re-enfranchise Oregonians outside the Willamette Valley.

• Maybe a political fight but no gunfight: Burdick is among the Legislature's leading gun-control advocates and is hopeful for passage of background-checks legislation. She said she would seek bipartisan support, and she vowed there would be "no gunfight at the OK Corral."

• Mixed messages about the governor: On Wednesday, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson released an audit report that was highly critical of the state's foster care system. But he said improvements are being made.

Republican Richardson praised Gov. Brown for appointing new, responsive leadership at the Department of Human Services. Director Fariborz Pakseresht and Child Welfare Director Marilyn Jones began their jobs last fall.

Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, who is challenging Brown for the governorship this year, saw it differently: "Oregon's Foster Care crisis is a failure of this government and this Governor to protect and care for some of the most vulnerable children among us. … Rather than putting this issue at the top of the agenda for the upcoming legislative session, the Governor continues to posture and position for her political base by pursuing misplaced priorities. …"

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughesisms.com/Facebook, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.