With the Oregon Legislature running at half-speed last week due to the ice storm, we’ll start by talking a bit about what is, or isn’t, happening at the Capitol. Then we’ll catch up on other tidbits of news and reader comments.
The Legislature canceled activities because so many Oregonians – including lawmakers and staff – were without power, internet or phone connections. Travel also remained challenging in some regions.
Due to the COVID-19 protocols, legislative committees are operating this year via videoconference. Lacking electricity at home, state Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, had to use his Capitol office to lead Wednesday evening’s hearing on wildfire recovery. Some members of the House and Senate wildfire committees were unable to participate due to the ongoing power outages.
The public hearing lasted 4 1/2 hours. “It’s truly the best part of the job when we get to interact with real people. It recharges the batteries,” Clem said at the end.
Technology problems plagued the virtual hearing, which was for southern Oregonians to talk about the aftermath of the Almeda, South Obenchain, Two Four Two and Slater wildfires.
“It was just quite an evening for the heart and the mind tonight. The breadth and the depth of this testimony was amazing,” said Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who chairs the Senate wildfire committee. “Really, I feel very badly for the frustration we may have caused with our technical problems.”
Golden noted that the Almeda fire started about 600 yards from his house but the flames headed the other direction.
Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, encouraged her colleagues to read the written testimony that also had been submitted, including one person’s story about being dinged for new utility bills on a home that had burned.
Weather disrupts legislative schedule: With the House canceling its Feb. 16 floor session, the vote on whether to expel Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, was moved to Tuesday. Hernandez, who unsuccessfully filed suit over the legislative investigation into allegations against him of sexual harassment and creating a hostile workplace, told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Sunday that he is resigning.
The Senate canceled most of its committee meetings on Wednesday, and the House also canceled some.
Sen. Chuck Thomsen, of Hood River, the Senate Republican deputy leader, joined House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby, in urging the Legislature to pause all committee meetings and other work until Oregonians regain power and internet service.
“This entire ‘remote session’ depends on the public’s ability to access their state Capitol through electronic means. With over 150,000 still without power and even more without internet, the public’s involvement in their government is actively being denied,” Thomsen said in a statement.
On Thursday morning, the Senate had an 11-minute floor session for the introduction of more than 30 new bills. A bare quorum of senators was present.
“It appears that no part of our state has not been affected by some kind of catastrophe this year. That includes some of the members of this body who have been hit and hurt very, very badly, and our constituents. Yet you found a way to be here today,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told his colleagues.
When Oregonians see their government continuing to function during these challenging times, Courtney said, “It’s like, ‘Well, we’re still going. We got hope.’”
Catching up: A previous column discussed the need for state officials to more adeptly involve local leaders and influencers in promoting compliance with COVID-19 protocols. Former Gov. John Kitzhaber said he made the same points nearly a year ago in a letter to Gov. Kate Brown.
The five-page letter provided analysis and a host of recommendations on confronting the pandemic, including working with communities “to prevent panic, hoarding and blame.”
Kitzhaber wrote: “The best bulwark against these things is close communications with communities through trusted messengers — ensuring people that they are not alone, keeping them apprised of what is going on and, especially, how they can help and support one another.
“Oregon already has a network of community-based problem-solving and delivery structures, including: watershed councils, regional solutions teams, early learning hubs and coordinated care organizations. We should be activating these groups to participate in a coordinated, well-thought out message of reassurance, of what to be concerned about; what not to be concerned about; and of the steps being taken and progress being made to address the virus itself, as well as its economic and social consequences.”
Which offense is worse: Under Measure 110 approved by voters in November, possession of small amounts of illegal drugs is now a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine.
A reader notes that in contrast, Senate Bill 592 would make it a Class A misdemeanor — punishable by 364 days in jail and a potential $6,250 fine — to use a lead weight for fishing or a lead shotgun pellet for hunting.
Trees down, windows open: Trees on the Capitol grounds and around state buildings in Salem suffered significant damage in the ice storm.
Meanwhile, crews are gradually removing the plywood that had covered the Capitol’s first-floor windows as protection against potentially violent protests last month. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the Capitol facilities staff has developed a system for quickly reinstalling the plywood if needed.