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Capital Chatter: Was housing bill outcome fixed?

Committee passes limits on rent increases and no-cause evictions with no amendments. Critics say they were shut out of negotiations.

An Oregon Senate committee held a three-hour, 45-minute hearing this week on a controversial bill to limit residential rent increases and restrict no-cause evictions of tenants.

Scores of Oregonians, including folks who traveled from Southern Oregon and east of the Cascades, testified on either side of Senate Bill 608.

The Senate Committee on Housing then passed the bill without making a single change. It was a party-line vote, with the majority Democrats prevailing and one Republican senator walking out.

Did senators have their minds made up beforehand? You be the judge. I've put together a running account of the meeting. Numbers at the start of some paragraphs indicate how many minutes and seconds, and eventually hours, the meeting has lasted at that point.

By the way, the full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill on Feb. 12, House Speaker Tina Kotek said she wants the House to pass the bill without making any changes, and Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday said she would sign the bill into law.

My recap:

Just after 3 p.m. Monday – The meeting starts.

"Good morning," says committee chair Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, as she bangs the gavel. "Welcome to the Senate Housing Committee. And for those of you who don't come here often, welcome to your Capitol."

00:28 — Fagan starts the public hearing on Senate Bill 608, saying, "In just a moment my committee administrator, Cheyenne Ross, will give you a brief summary of the bill."

About 200 people are signed up to testify.

The hearing room is crowded to capacity. State police officers politely direct latecomers to the overflow hearing room and the Oregon Capitol lobby, where people can watch on screens.

Fagan asks members of the public to keep their testimony to about a minute. A timer will go off after 90 seconds.

First, four panels of invited participants — legislators, advocates and policy experts — will speak. They will get more time.

"The biggest goal on this very important policy affecting the entire state is to make sure that everyone who has made the trek to the Capitol today has an opportunity to be heard on this topic," Fagan says.

03:04 — The committee administrator reads quickly from the detailed summary of what the bill does. People in the back of the room call out that they can't hear her. They ask Ross to read slower and louder.

There is no explanation of the five amendments submitted by Republican Sen. Fred Girod of Stayton. Fagan says one of the panelists will go over them.

05:33 — The first of four panels begins; they do not include anyone opposed to the legislation.

Three Democratic leaders testify in favor — Kotek and Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, both of Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem.

They are followed by advocates Katrina Holland, executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, and Sybil Hebb of the Oregon Law Center.

25:35 — As Fagan requested, Hebb responds to Sen. Girod's amendments. Hebb opposes each one and cites its flaws.

51:48 — The four panels are done. Three panels have endorsed the bill. One, representing some landlords, is officially neutral but says the bill is not as onerous as skeptics claim.

Members of the Senate Housing Committee have asked no questions so far, and Fagan will not allow questions during the public testimony.

52:48 — Public testimony begins. Fagan says twice as many supporters as opponents have signed up to testify, so she will have two groups of supporters testify, followed by one of opponents, and so on.

Ninety seconds per person goes by quickly, to the surprise of many people testifying. At one point, an audience member calls out for Fagan to let the speaker finish. Fagan responds that it is her committee to run.

Supporters of the bill recount stories of unfair evictions and huge rent increases. Some say the bill doesn't go far enough.

Opponents say they were left out of negotiations over the legislation. They tell why they evicted tenants and say the bill will have the unintended consequence of reducing rental housing as landlords get of the business.

3:48:50 — The last person, a property manager for a Southern Oregon manufactured housing community, finishes testifying.

Fagan asks whether anyone else is waiting to testify.

3:49:06 — Fagan closes the hearing. The committee begins its work session on SB 608.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, moves to amend the bill by removing the emergency clause, which says the bill takes effect immediately upon being signed the governor. Emergency clauses have been the target of many legislators, especially Republicans, who contend that few bills address actual emergencies.

"I recognize this bill is not likely to change," Knopp says.

The new state law would be the first of its kind in the U.S. Knopp says landlords need time to prepare for it. Girod agrees. Both have spoken briefly.

The committee's Democratic members — Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham and Jeff Golden of Ashland — devoutly disagree and oppose making any changes.

Like many legislators, Monnes Anderson and Golden are landlords with a few units.

"This bill has been so well-vetted," says Monnes Anderson. "I feel strongly it should go forward without any amendments."

Golden worries that if lawmakers start amending the bill, the Legislature might adjourn in June without having taken significant action.

"We have a humanitarian crisis in this state that has gone unaddressed for too long," he says. He agrees there are flaws in the bill, which does not address the lack of affordable housing, and says he is open to addressing those flaws in future legislation.

"This is triage," he says of the bill, "but triage is absolutely necessary right now."

3:56:23 — Fagan firmly opposes removing the emergency clause: "With all due respect to the concerns that have been raised, I don't believe that five senators who know where we are sleeping tonight, and that it is safe and warm and dry and stable, are in any position to tell hundreds of thousands of Oregonians without that security that their housing situation is not an emergency."

3:56:39 — Her comment seems like a rebuke to me. Girod walks out, saying, "I'm going to be leaving."

The Democratic committee members vote against removing the emergency clause. Republican Knopp loses 3-1. Knopp does not try to introduce the other amendments.

3:57:20 — The committee takes up the overall, unamended bill.

"Less supply with continuing demands equals higher rents. So I think it is unfortunate that we're not going to actually solve the problem and that we're likely to make it worse by this legislation and that's really what makes me sad," Knopp says.

"It's clear that there aren't going to be any more amendments that are going to be approved on this bill, and so the majority is going to move forward with the legislation. I truly hope it works out but I think economics and the facts say otherwise."

Golden agrees with the necessity for increasing the housing supply. SB 608 is a compromise, he says, and will do more good than harm.

Discussing housing supply, Monnes Anderson notes that most new rental housing is built for higher-income tenants.

Wrapping up, Fagan says the bill is the minimum that the Legislature should do.

"I share the concerns of many people that we heard today that I wish this bill did more and I would be willing to go further," she says.

Golden adds: "I believe the problems we're facing today have been created by a very small percentage of landlords in this state. … But we haven't found a way to word the bill that says, 'We'd like to restrain greedy landlords but not the majority of public-spirited, compassionate landlords.'"

4:05:00 — The committee passes the bill. The three Democrats are for it. Knopp votes "no." Girod is excused.

4:07:23 — Fagan adjourns the meeting. She and Monnes Anderson carry the bill on the Senate floor.

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