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Politics & Government

Oregon House Faces More Delays After Second Capitol COVID-19 Diagnosis

A 2019 file photo of the the Oregon House of Representatives. The legislative body has canceled planned floor sessions for a week following two confirmed cases of COVID-19.
A 2019 file photo of the the Oregon House of Representatives. The legislative body has canceled planned floor sessions for a week following two confirmed cases of COVID-19.

House Speaker Tina Kotek canceled two planned floor sessions Monday. Partisan disputes have already led to a backlog of bills in the chamber.

Proceedings in the Oregon House have been delayed by at least one more day, after a second confirmed case of COVID-19 within the Capitol.

In an email Sunday, House Speaker Tina Kotek’s office announced that two floor sessions scheduled for Monday would not occur “because some individuals who were in the Capitol are still waiting for results or may need to test as a result” of the new confirmed case.

Officials have not offered any information about who the second diagnosed person is, only saying they were last in the building on March 16. That’s the same day another person — the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the building during the 2021 session — was last active on the House floor, according to Kotek.

The canceled floor session adds more delay in a year the House has struggled to efficiently complete its business. Republicans in the chamber have sought to slow proceedings by insisting that every bill be read in full before a final vote, a process that can add hours to even simple bipartisan legislation.

In a letter last week, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said her party would relent if Democrats agreed to scrap bills Republicans don’t agree with, take up Republican amendments, and reduce the scope of the legislative session. Her office has since said it does not have a definitive list of objectionable bills.

Democrats have dismissed Drazan’s demands as unreasonable, tantamount to seeking veto power by the minority party. In a letter sent to Kotek on Friday, House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said she was “honestly baffled that the Republican response to the process they don’t like is to force reading of bills on the House Floor, when it doesn’t even address their complaints and has increased all members’ odds of being exposed to a deadly virus.”

The habit of reading bills in full also takes a toll on the staff in the House chief clerk’s office. The next bill scheduled to be considered in the chamber is 170 pages long, and will take hours to read.

To ease the strain on House Reading Clerk Lacy Ramirez Gruss, Kotek’s office announced this weekend it would begin using a computer to read bills, “to further reduce the risk of virus transmission when the House is in session for the purpose of bill reading.”

A spokesman for Kotek said the computer software would read bills at a normal pace. In 2019, Democrats in Colorado attempted to skirt the bill-reading rule by having a computer speed read proposed legislation. A court ordered them to stop the practice.

Kotek had scheduled nearly 24 hours of floor session this week to get through a growing backlog of bills.

Meanwhile, business in the Oregon Senate has flowed as usual, with Republicans largely agreeing to waive the requirement that bills be read in full. Not all GOP senators appear to agree with that plan, however. When the chamber took up a controversial gun control bill last week, five Republican senators did not attend.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting