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Oregon lawmakers work to find special session deal, and renewed trust

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Chris M Lehman
/
KLCC
Lawmakers are returning to the state capitol, seem here at a Veterans Day ceremony, for a Dec. 13 special session.

A lot could happen over the next couple of days, but one thing is clear: the fight over political lines is done for the next decade, but the political bruising is still raw.

Gov. Kate Brown has called lawmakers back to Salem next week to stave off a wave of evictions. Republicans, however, are reluctant to return to the state Capitol. They have argued there are more efficient ways to address the state’s ongoing housing crisis.

This is when the deal-making, the horse-trading, the pot-sweetening begins.

But for House Republicans, there is one major complication: Can they trust House Speaker Tina Kotek to keep her word?

As the longest-serving speaker in Oregon history, Kotek has amassed immense power. She’s carved out a reputation as a talented negotiator and savvy political wonk.

But when she recently reneged on a deal with Republicans to give them an equal say in the redistricting process, her political opponents said she lost one of the most powerful currencies in Salem: the strength of her word.

“The trust is broken. We don’t trust,” said Republican Deputy Leader Kim Wallan, of Medford. “I don’t know what that means going forward, but I think everyone understands why we wouldn’t.”

Democrats balk at the idea that Kotek is the problem. They counter with accusations that House Republicans have consistently negotiated in bad faith and are simply clinging to the narrative of Kotek as a dealbreaker to hurt her gubernatorial bid.

“Any attempts to score cheap political points by making this session about the Speaker are simply politics at its worst,” House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner said in a statement. “This is about following through on Oregon’s commitment to protect renters who are at risk of losing their housing in the coldest winter months. Hopefully, legislators can focus on serving our constituents by showing up and doing the work rather than playing petty political games.”

House Republicans have very little influence in the state Capitol. They are currently outnumbered by Democrats 36 to 22, with two current vacancies on each side of the aisle.

But now, before the session starts, is a rare moment when they have political leverage. In order to conduct any business, two-thirds of each chamber’s members must show up. That means, to pass anything into law, Democrats need some Republicans to show up. Due to current vacancies, that could mean either three or four House Republicans need to be in Salem.

Earlier this year, Kotek struck a deal with House Republicans to give them an equal say in the process of drawing new U.S. House lines in exchange for their commitment to stop requiring bills to be read in full before passage during the 2021 legislative session. The agreement helped Democrats tremendously.

At the time, April 2021, Republican lawmakers were using various legislative tools to actively slow the lawmaking process. After Kotek made her deal with Republicans, the Democratic agenda largely sailed through the House.

“It was clever and an astute move to give (House Republicans) something they wanted and still have a backstop,” said recently retired Democratic lawmaker Brian Clem, a nod to the fact that if Republicans and Democrats could not pass new lines, the legislative maps would go to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat. Congressional maps, however, would not.

Kotek’s move to back out of the deal granting minority Republicans equal say in the state’s redistricting process shocked Clem. Instead, Kotek pushed through new political maps benefitting her party despite GOP objections.

Clem still remembers the voicemail then-Gov. John Kitzhaber left on his phone when the governor thought the Salem Democrat was going to go back on his word on a certain tough vote in 2011.

Kitzhaber said, “If you do this, I’m out,” Clem recalled.

Clem said the message was clear: double-cross the governor and risk losing his support for the rest of his career in the Legislature.

“The currency of our business has been your word,” he said. “And if your currency is all shot, how do you make deals anymore?”

Further complicating the negotiations, the House has a newly-minted Republican leader, Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, of Prineville, who was elected by her GOP colleagues earlier this week.

She is pushing for lawmakers to convene the emergency board, which can allocate money when the Legislature is not in session, but cannot pass policies.

“The drawn-out process of an uncertain special session is not the answer. Let’s make Oregonians a priority by expediting relief,” she said in a statement.

The lead-up to the Dec. 13 special session and behind-the-scenes negotiations is the type of thing that gives Senate President Peter Courtney nightmares.

“I’m very worried, but I also know since the governor made the call some people are working very hard, including myself to try and figure out a way we can do this in one day,” Courtney said. “As of right now, we don’t have the breakthrough agreement, but we sure have been working hard and we’re closer now than if you had called me yesterday.”

Negotiations on the Senate side have been less tense than on the House side. Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said he believes Courtney would honor an agreement if they struck one.

Still, it takes both chambers for a bill to become law.

“There is no doubt, I think, in life and everything else, the greater your trust, the more you can get done, the more you can resolve differences,” Courtney said. “... And there is no doubt about it, there is a lot of distrust. And that’s the biggest thing we’re fighting now is distrust.”

The two Democratic lawmakers who have been hashing out the policy portion of this special session — Rep. Julie Fahey, of Eugene, and Sen. Kayse Jama, of Portland — said they have tried to stay out of the political fray.

Their goal: to prevent a mass eviction crisis that tenant advocates say has unfolded in slow motion now for months. For Jama and Fahey, getting rent money into the hands of Oregonians is the priority.

Thousands of people continue to apply for rental assistance. The agency overseeing the rental assistance program, Oregon Housing and Community Services, has temporarily closed its web portal in an attempt to clear a massive backlog of more than 30,000 applications. Once they do, agency officials have said the $289 million pot of federal rental aid money will be gone.

Fahey and Jama are proposing to put an additional $195 million on the table. A majority — $100 million — will go to help the state’s community action agencies establish a more localized network of eviction prevention services. That could include collaborating with county courts to intercept cases, providing mediation and translation services, distributing checks in courts and bolstering tenant outreach.

They’re also dedicating $90 million of their proposed package to replenish the state’s rent assistance fund. The fund was recently closed to allow the state to work through a backlog of applications, this proposal would allow the portal to reopen in January and also add $5 million to support the state’s housing and community services agency for costs they’ve incurred due to the surge in applications.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the plan will be extending eviction protections for everyone currently stuck in the queue waiting to receive a check, a move that Republicans feel is unnecessary.

Fahey and Jama are adamant that extending protections for renters who’ve applied for assistance is crucial to saving thousands from homelessness this winter, and they’re optimistic that they’ll be able to get it passed.

“The reality is that this is a challenging time,” Jama said. “It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen.”

A lot could happen over the next few days, but one thing is clear: the fight over political lines is done for the next decade, but the political bruises are still obvious.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lauren Dake, Sam Stites