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Capital Chatter: Weird politics pervades final weeks

Tuesday€„¢s floor session of the Oregon Senate was a window into the Legislature€„¢s fluctuating climate.

It's June.

That is long-timers' explanation for the political weirdness that pervades the Oregon Capitol as tired lawmakers, staff and lobbyists look forward to adjournment, as long as their priority bills pass and their perceived bad bills fall by the wayside.

June 30 is the constitutional deadline for adjournment. Legislative leaders hope to finish before then. Vastly outnumbered, Republican believe they've made at least slight progress in House dealings with the supermajority Democrats. In the Senate, Republicans publicly assailed the Democratic leadership despite having ended their walkout and being back at work.

Tuesday's floor session of the Oregon Senate was a window into the Legislature's fluctuating climate.

It started off lovey-dovey. The Senate sang "Happy Birthday" to Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, with President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, after asking onlookers to "please forgive the quality of what's about to happen."

Then Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, thanked Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, for providing the potatoes that became dinner the previous evening for her vegan, vegetarian, picky and non-pork-eating four children.

"Thank you so much," Gelser said. "Potatoes are often the answer."

Monday had been Potato Day at the Capitol, with potato growers distributing bags of blue potatoes.

Gelser and her colleagues welcomed the more than 200 Oregonians with intellectual and development disabilities who came to the Capitol with their direct support professionals. They were lobbying for greater state support for such workers.

The turnover rate for these "incredibly dedicated and extensively trained" workers is 47.4 percent, Gelser said. She is the mother of an individual with developmental disabilities and, as of that day, the mother of a direct support professional.

The audience in the balcony galleries applauded. That's a no-no. Audible public response, whether clapping or booing, is not allowed in the Senate, House or legislative committees.

"Don't do that! Stop!" Courtney said, banging his gavel. "I don't like to do what I just did, but I've got to do it. We're not allowed to do that in the galleries. I'm sorry."

After more remonstrances, the Senate was embroiled in a legislative rarity: a bill whose outcome was uncertain, because the Senate supermajority was split on it.

On a party-line vote, the Senate first voted down a Republican proposal to place a $1.5 million cap on non-economic damages awarded by juries in personal injury cases. The House had already passed HB 2014, which eliminated any such caps. A 2016 decision by the Oregon Supreme Court has limited damages to $500,000.

Republicans had filed a minority report to HB 2014 — their alternative to the Democratic version passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.

"Unlike a lot of minority reports, this is a good-faith counter-offer to the majority report. It's not a – quote – 'positioning bill' or 'gotcha bill,'" said Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, told her colleagues.

That was a nod to the reality that minority reports and other tactics often are employed on Senate and House floors for campaign purposes: Get certain lawmakers on the record supporting or opposing a piece of legislation.

Senate Democrats stuck together to defeat the Republican proposal. But they splintered on the majority version, which was staunchly supported on the floor by the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Floyd Prozanski of Eugene, and by Shemia Fagan of Portland.

The debate was intense. Senators were glad to leave the chamber afterward.

HB 2014 failed 14-15, illustrating how Senate dynamics have changed as the liberal wing of the Democratic caucus has gained strength. In the past, Courtney — a moderate — would not have allowed a bill to reach the floor unless sufficient votes were lined up ahead of time. But Fagan and Prozanski wanted the vote.

As Fagan said, for once the outcome was not orchestrated.


In any case, the Senate vibe was exceedingly uncomfortable, and by the next day, it would get worse.

As a bystander mused after Tuesday's floor session, "Was that session as weird as I thought?"

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.