After a series of opening ceremonies that stretched on for hours, including songs from seemingly every elementary school in Oregon, both houses of the state legislature finally used their first day in session to get to work. First up on the block: changing the way lawmakers do business.
In many ways, the legislative kickoff—on Monday, January 8—was a test of the new Democratic majority and, to a large extent, new Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley. As promised by Merkley, the first order of business in the House was to work through ethics reforms in the wake of numerous lobbyist scandals.
The result was a proposal to ban all gifts over $10 from lobbyists to House members, including a ban on out-of-state trips, meals, and entertainment. Before the session even began, House Democrats applauded the ban, and Republicans agreed to support it.
As late as last Friday, January 5, House Republican Whip Dennis Richardson gave his full support for the measures, saying they were "a step in the right direction."
But as soon as the session began, there were clear signs that Republicans had a trick up their sleeve. During a meeting of the House Rules Committee, Richardson—a committee member—introduced an amendment that would ban gifts entirely, doing away with the $10 limit.
That amendment was shot down in the committee, but came up again during a full House discussion on the ban. Republicans, including Vicki Berger, Tom Butler, and John Lim, announced they thought the $10 limit was unenforceable, and called for a total ban on gifts. (Butler went even further, suggesting there should be a written ban on gifts of alcohol or "other mind-altering drugs.")
It was an ironic sight for most observers—Republicans proposing an even stricter ban on lobbyist gifts than Democrats. It belied Merkley's pronouncement that there was bipartisan support for the reforms, and it begged the question: Were Republicans really supporting a total gift ban, or was it a ploy to embarrass Merkley and the newly empowered House Democrats?
"If anybody believes they really wanted a zero dollar gift ban, you're not paying attention," says Russ Kelley, spokesman for the House majority. "And if you don't see this as a harbinger of things to come, then you're really not paying attention."
Ultimately, the gift ban as written—with a $10 limit—overwhelmingly passed in the House, with only four votes against it. (While the vote was happening, several lawmakers removed bouquets of flowers, valued at around $10.99, which had been given by the Nurses Association that morning, and set them on a side table.)
In the other house, senators used the first day to set up a timeline for the session, calling for it to wrap up by the end of June. The timeline also sets up a special session for next February, lasting around 30 days. Both items are a precursor to the possibility of annual sessions—currently, the legislature only meets once every two years, although it can meet during the off time for special sessions to work on emergencies. The Senate's timeline and special-session proposal passed with a majority of the vote, and will now go to the House for final approval.
"The intent is to experiment with something like an annual session and see if it works," says Kelley. "Is a 30-day session enough? Is it too much? We want to see it in practice."
An official change to annual sessions will eventually require a constitutional amendment, which will have to be approved by voters.
The rest of the legislature's first week is dedicated to introductions of bills, which will then be assigned to committees. That will be a massive job—there are already more than 300 proposed bills between both houses.