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Capital Chatter: How hostile are Oregon Legislators?

As Kotek reins in legislators, questions are raised about how public is treated in Capitol.

House Speaker Tina Kotek is serious about improving the workplace environment of the Oregon Capitol, but that comes a political price.

Those are the messages imparted by Kotek's bombshell decision to remove Portland Democrat Mitch Greenlick as chair of the House Health Care Committee but — in what some folks perceive as a tit-for-tat move — also bounce Keizer Republican Bill Post from serving on the House Judiciary Committee.

Greenlick has a reputation as an obstreperous legislator, abruptly interrupting people as they testify before his committee and disdaining anyone who disagrees with him. That conduct is common in Congress but is considered unacceptable in the Oregon Legislature, which is why I've been surprised he's held onto his chairmanship for a dozen years.

At a Health Care hearing on Tuesday, Greenlick told pharmaceutical lobbyists: "I've been listening to your guys' comments for 16 years. Generally, you're not stupid. In this case, you appear to be stupid."

He also tangled with Republican legislators who called him out for behavior. House Republicans were so upset that their leader, Rep. Carl Wilson of Grants Pass, met with Kotek on Wednesday and asked for Greenlick's resignation as committee chair.

To press their point, Republicans boycotted Wednesday's meeting of the Legislature's Committee on Capitol Culture.

Republican Post's apparent sin was his use of social media, posting items that offended progressives. This week he encouraged gun owners to "be there, be ready" when gun control advocates come to the Capitol next week.

The tweet didn't seem out of line to me. But according to OPB, Post also had tweeted that Democratic Sen. Shemia Fagan of Portland was "cray-cray" — a tweet he reportedly quickly deleted.

Greenlick's comments were similar to those raised by lobbyists a week ago during a training session organized by legislative leaders on promoting a "respectful workplace." Hundreds of lobbyists attended, as did I and several other members of the Capitol Press Corps. We were invited because the Capitol is our workplace and we interact with legislators, staff and lobbyists.

I was stunned by the intensity and unanimity of feeling among lobbyists that lawmakers often are disrespectful of them and of the public. They told how private citizens, testifying for the first time in their State Capitol, were made to feel stupid. They said legislators sometimes start texting with someone else in the middle of a conversation with them. They complained that legislators have no qualms about contacting them at night or on weekends, either to reprimand them or demand information.

And because lobbyists dare not offend lawmakers, who control their legislative fates, there is little recourse for brutish and bullying behavior.

My pet annoyance is that many legislators type on their phones or laptops during committee hearings and floor debates instead of listening. They resemble high schoolers holding phones in their lap as if no one will see they are texting, doing email or whatever.

That is why I was struck by the respectful Senate debate on SB 608, the controversial legislation to restrict rent increases and no-cause evictions. The majority Democrats' passage of the bill was foreordained, as were Republicans objections. Yet senators listened, setting an example for one another.

The Legislature has a long, long, long way to go in treating everyone with respect. For at least a short time recently, the Senate set a norm of decency.

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.