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Straight Talk: Oregon's upcoming short legislative session and a new era of leadership

Oregon's constitution stipulates the legislative session in even numbered years can last only 35 days. It's a short time with a long list of pressing issues.

PORTLAND, Ore. — On Feb. 1, Oregon lawmakers in the House will be gaveled in by a new Speaker of the House for the first time in nearly a decade. 

Long time Speaker Tina Kotek resigned effective Jan. 22 to focus on her run for Oregon Governor. Last weekend, a majority of House Democrats chose Rep. Dan Rayfield of Corvallis to succeed Kotek. The decision will be formalized when the legislature convenes with a vote of the full House.

KGW political analyst Len Bergstein discussed the changes in leadership in this week's episode of "Straight Talk."

"There's always a lot of churn and change in the legislature and it's always surprising how the new crop seems to be just right for the time. Rayfield is smart. He has been co-chair of Ways and Means. He understands state budgets," Bergstein said.

Credit: Oregon Legislature
Representative Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis)

Shift in leadership geography

House Democrats will also have a new majority leader with Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene succeeding Rep. Barbara Smith Warner of Portland. Bergstein called the changes a big geographical shift in leadership for the state.

"I think you have two really good leaders for the Democrats. You have to acknowledge that this is the first time in a long time that Portland doesn't have the leadership...Now, we have folks from Corvallis and Eugene who are guiding the legislature. There are Portland lawmakers in positions of leadership, but they are not at the top, so it will be a little bit of a change," Bergstein said.

End of an era

In addition to those changes, Senate President Peter Courtney announced he will not seek re-election. Courtney is the longest serving Senate President in Oregon history serving since 2003. This is also Governor Kate Brown's last legislative session since she is term-limited and will leave office at the end of 2022.

RELATED: Peter Courtney plans to retire from longtime role as Oregon Senate President

Credit: Pat Dooris, KGW
Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (file photo)

"We've had eras pass in the past. The Kitz and Katz era with [former Governor] John Kitzhaber [who was Senate President] and Vera Katz [the first woman to serve as Speaker of the Oregon House in 1985.] It's always a time to pause and reflect on what phase Oregon is going through. But, there's a lot of leadership there," Bergstein said.

Short session: Long list of issues

Oregon's constitution stipulates the short legislative session in even numbered years can last only 35 days. It's a short time with a long list of pressing issues lawmakers hope to tackle.

"We all agree Oregon is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic in terms of the economy and health care, and also from natural disasters like wildfires. So, there's a lot of unfinished business for legislators," Bergstein said.

Governor Brown's $200 million workforce recovery plan

Governor Brown's $200 million dollar workforce recovery package is likely to be a top agenda item for lawmakers. The program is called "Future Ready Oregon" and would prioritize the Oregonians disproportionately impacted by the pandemic with the focus on the health care, manufacturing, and construction industries.

RELATED: Gov. Kate Brown has $200 million workforce development plan

"This is a very big program I think will take up a lot of oxygen in the Capitol during the month of February," Bergstein said.

Bergstein said other hot topics during the short session are likely to include additional COVID-19 relief, rental assistance, and wildfire recovery, emergency heat relief, whether to pay farm workers overtime, Oregon gaming laws, expanding broadband connectivity across the state, and cracking down on illegal marijuana grows in southern Oregon.

Police reform legislation: Bipartisan support

Lawmakers are also expected to continue the work they did on police reform in the 2021 legislative session. Lawmakers passed nearly two dozen police conduct and accountability bills that took effect Jan.1.

Rep. Ron Noble (R-McMinnville) played a key role in helping shepherd the bills through the legislature in partnership with Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), who is chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Noble is the vice-chair. 

Rep. Noble was also a guest on this week's episode of "Straight Talk." 

Noble, who is a former police chief for McMinnville, said passing the police reform legislation was a true bipartisan effort.

Credit: Rep. Ron Noble
Rep. Ron Noble (R-McMinnville) formerly served as McMinnville Police Chief.

"It was very collaborative. I have to give a lot of credit to Rep. Bynum and her willingness to listen to the profession on how we could become better and balance it against the tragedies we've seen," he said.

The package of bills covers everything from background checks, to equity training, to setting up a state commission to set uniform standards of conduct. Noble called the package of bills significant.

"We have been able to take a look at law enforcement and try to raise the bar to meet the expectations of our communities. It's not an easy job, I've been there. But I think we can do a better job, especially when it comes to dealing with some of the tragedies in our communities we have seen over the last couple of decades," he said.

RELATED: Here are new laws that go into effect in Oregon and Portland in 2021

HB 2936: Statewide standards for background checks

He called the passage of House Bill 2936, which requires the state to create a uniform statewide background check process, extremely important.

"I like to tell people I knew what brand of diapers you wore before I made a hiring decision. It became clear not all agencies were as equally thorough in their background checks. This will set statewide standards as to how deep and what agencies need to do before making a hiring decision," he said.

More police reform work to do

Rep. Bynum and Rep. Noble agree there's much more work to be done when it comes to police reform. 

In a statement after the 2021 session, Rep. Bynum said, "This session, the community rebuilt policing. We began with an ambitious agenda, and we finished strong. We also realize that our work is not yet done, and we intend on bringing forth more bills in the interim session."

Credit: KGW Staff
Six of the police reform bills passed in the 2021 legislative session.

Rep. Noble agreed and said he doesn't think the work is ever done.

"We are talking about a very dynamic society, a very dynamic profession. We made a lot of changes and those changes are to provide support, greater training, and make clear the expectations of those that we select to be men and women in law enforcement. But, there are always things to do," he said.

One of a dozen candidates running for Oregon's new U.S House seat

Noble is also one of at least a dozen candidates running for the newly created Oregon Congressional District 6 which includes Polk County, Yamhill County, portions of Washington and Marion County, including Salem.

"This is the area I grew up in....not to mention the current district I represent in the House (District 24) is right in the middle of Congressional District-6. So, it's my home and I am ready to do the best I can for the people of Oregon," he said.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
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