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Capital Chatter: Four questions control session's fate

Several days of legislative committee meetings next week will provide the first clues to the answers.

Four questions will determine the fate of the 2020 Oregon Legislature. Several days of legislative committee meetings next week will provide the first clues to the answers.

1. The big one: Will the Legislature pass climate-change legislation?

After the demise of House Bill 2020 in the 2019 Legislature, Democrats hoped to have a new version ready for discussion and public hearings this fall.

Instead, the Senate carbon cap and trade bill will get its first public airing on Monday – three weeks before the Legislature convenes for its 35-day session.

The Senate Interim Committee on Environment and Natural Resources meets at 8 a.m. Monday. On the agenda is the Oregon Greenhouse Gas Initiative, currently known as LC 19.

This is an informational meeting with testimony from selected speakers. The public can attend but not talk. As of mid-afternoon Thursday, neither the bill draft nor the names of the invited speakers had been posted on the committee website. (To keep up with bills, committees and lawmakers, go to www.OregonLegislature.gov)

In last year's session, HB 2020 lacked the crucial 16th vote among Democrats for passage in the Senate, despite advocates' insistence to the contrary. Senate Republicans were unanimously opposed. They twice walked out to stymie its passage. That could happen again.

Early reports are this bill is somewhat watered down — a little or a lot, depending on your perspective. Still, gaining any Republicans' support will be difficult.

For a carbon bill to pass, the changes must be A) adequate to win over at least one of the three recalcitrant Democratic senators; B) sufficiently responsive to rural concerns that Republicans won't walk out, even if they don't vote for it; and C) strong enough that hardcore Democratic environmentalists still support it.

2. A related question: What will the tone be?

Especially in the Senate, the 2019 session ended in disappointment, disillusionment and disgust. On all sides, there were misunderstandings and perceptions of broken promises over HB 2020.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and others counseled that a timeout sorely was needed and that advocates then should spend time hearing the concerns of opponents, especially in rural Oregon.

The acrimony within the Capitol extended to back-and-forth complaints about legislators' conduct — again, primarily among senators. The Senate and House conduct committees are expected to meet next week to continue dealing with those complaints.

In response to a damning report a year ago by the state Bureau of Labor and Industries, legislative leaders vowed to change the Capitol culture, particularly by doing more to prevent sexual harassment. But the broader goal of creating a respectful workplace will be extremely challenging in the political atmosphere of the Capitol.

The Legislature has revised its personnel policies, created an Equity Office and hired Jackie Sandmeyer as acting legislative equity officer. Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, was among those who praised Sandmeyer's appointment based on their previous work.

In a recent email distributed to legislative folks, Sandmeyer said the Equity Office "will serve as an independent resource for anyone who has concerns related to discrimination, harassment, retaliation or general respectful workplace culture. In that role and as outlined by HB 3377, this office will provide training; perform climate surveys; oversee external investigations; and serve as a place for individuals to confidentially report concerns about behavior, receive process counseling, and/or generally inquire about concerning behavior."

Meanwhile, national and state election politics will hang over the session. Even more than usual, partisans will be angling to make themselves look good and deprive others of that opportunity. The filing deadline for the 2020 elections is just days after the session ends.

A number of legislators are seeking re-election. In addition, two high-profile legislators recently resigned to run for higher office — Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, for Congress, and former House Democratic Leader Jennifer Williamson, of Portland, for secretary of state. Outgoing Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, was sworn in Thursday to fill Bentz's seat and will take over his committee assignments. But as with any organization, any change in membership affects internal legislative dynamics.

(Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, is remaining in the Legislature while also going for secretary of state.)

Meanwhile, observers wonder whether 2020 will be the last reign for Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. The longest-serving president in Oregon history, Courtney is a moderate. But after the liberal wing gained strength in the 2018 elections, he was forced to move left. If voters elect more liberal Democrats to the Senate in November, they will want one of their own as Senate president. As a staunch Democrat, Courtney is unlikely to try to maintain his presidency through a coalition with Republicans, although they work well together.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House has new Republican leadership, which will affect dynamics there. Will Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, and her team respond more aggressively to the Democratic supermajority?

3. The nuts and bolts: What budget surprises lie ahead?

A major reason that Oregon shifted to annual legislative sessions was to deal with any problems in the state's budget, which covers two-year periods.

During next week's Legislative Days, legislators will hear a number of budget updates and spending requests. It seems that lawmakers — of either party — never lack for ideas on how to spend money.

State economists will issue their quarterly economic and revenue forecasts on Feb. 12, estimating how much more money — or less — the Legislature can spend during 2019-21 than previously planned.

4. The wild cards: What else could derail the session?

There remains a solid probability of a Senate Republican walkout over a climate change bill.

Usually, something else comes along to cause a blowup. A proposed firearms storage bill is a candidate. Opponents of childhood vaccination mandates are getting ready in case that legislation comes around again.

And there are a whole bunch of seemingly innocuous bills — from septic tanks to hunting licenses — that could morph into contentious issues.

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.