SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are on track to introduce the highest number of bills in a decade, suggesting the overwhelming majority of them won’t get even a momentary hearing as the Legislature operates mostly online until at least April due to the pandemic.
House Speaker Tina Kotek told reporters that she expects the total number of bills could approach 4,000. If that happens, it would be the most pieces of legislation to be introduced in an Oregon legislative session since at least 2009, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis of legislative data.
Nearly one month into the five-month session, the avalanche of bills reflects the lack of a clear focus for the 2021 session among the state’s top Democratic leaders. Kotek, D-Portland, has said the state’s wildfire recovery and COVID-19 response efforts — which lawmakers also worked on in special sessions and emergency board meetings in 2020 — continue to be among her top priorities, along with legislation to broadly address homelessness and housing affordability and racial injustice and inequities.
“We’re really encouraging our (committee) chairs to prioritize, go for the urgent, go for the things that are of most import right now for Oregonians,” Kotek told reporters in a question-and-answer session.
The speaker said it takes more time and planning to hold virtual hearings on legislation.
Kotek has said lawmakers might not meet in-person to hold floor votes on bills until April due to COVID-19. In the meantime, they are holding virtual committee hearings and committee votes and meeting for weekly floor sessions to introduce new bills.
According to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis, lawmakers had introduced more than 2,100 bills as of Tuesday. Legislative lawyers have completed or are still drafting more than 3,700 legislative measures, Kotek’s spokesperson Danny Moran wrote in an email.
The highest number of bills introduced since 2009 was 3,020 in 2011, The Oregonian/OregonLive found. Only a fraction of the proposals pass each session. In the 2017 session, 2,829 were introduced and 810 passed. In 2019, 2,768 were introduced and 757 passed. Those figures include required resolutions to conclude the sessions.
The House has 23 committees and subcommittees this year, compared with 13 in the last five-month session in 2019. The Senate has 13 committees this year, the same as in 2019.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he was surprised to hear the number of bills was so high and concerned about managing lawmakers’ expectations since most pieces of legislation will not pass.
“I can’t quite understand where all these bills are coming from or why there’s such an increase,” Courtney said. “It’s got me very concerned because we’re not gonna pass that many bills by a long shot … That always makes the session more difficult, more agitated.”
Courtney said some of the legislation was revived after it failed to pass last year when Republicans walked out of the Capitol to kill a climate bill. He also noted that duplicative bills can contribute to the issue, such as legislation that both he and Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, introduced to require insurers to cover proton beam therapy if they cover radiation for cancer. Only one of those bills is necessary, Courtney said.
Meanwhile, at least four least four bills would require the Department of Transportation to “study development of uniform standards for speed bump height and markings,” including one for which Kotek is the chief sponsor. Many bills this session could be categorized as instructing state agencies to study a various topic and report back to the Legislature in the future.
The House introduced 68 new bills on Tuesday, Feb. 9, including House Bill 3153, which would change Oregon laws on public health emergencies that Gov. Kate Brown has relied upon to issue restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. It would allow the governor to declare such emergencies for only 14 days, with the ability to extend the emergency once for an additional 14 days. After that, the only option would be for the Legislature to meet to vote on whether to declare an emergency.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, introduced the bill at the request of Neil Ruggles, the owner of a martial arts business in Washington County who joined state Reps. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls and Mike Nearman, R-Independence, and state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, to file a lawsuit that claimed the governor abused her authority by issuing stay-home and other coronavirus orders. With Democrats in control of both chambers of the Legislature, it stands little chance of passing.
There are a number of one-off bills with no clear connection to the COVID-19, wildfire and economic crisis that legislative leaders have identified as their top priorities.
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, has a proposal, House Bill 3122, to require the Oregon Board of Chiropractic Examiners to remove disciplinary information about chiropractors from its website and other publications under certain circumstances.
Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, has a bill that would also affect transparency. Senate Bill 550 would require governments in Oregon to replace a public employee’s name with a “unique identifier” in any public records released, if that employee requested the redaction.
Sens. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Hansell recently introduced a proposal to limit local governments’ regulations of commercial alarm systems and “battery charged fences.”
Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, has a proposal — Senate Bill 12 — that would require health insurance plans for teachers and state government employees to reimburse those employees and their family members for airfare and an overnight hotel stay so they can purchase 90-day supplies of prescription drugs in Mexico and Canada.
“I do think there’s a realization sinking in that this is not a session where you’re gonna do as many bills as we did in 2019,” Kotek said. “I’m really pushing people to go for urgency, go for quality over quantity in terms of the impact it will have on people’s lives.”