Oregon Legislature to convene with Dems in charge

Oregon Legislature to convene with Dems in charge
The Oregon State Capitol (Photo courtesy Flickr user cursedthing)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The legislative tie that fostered a relatively collegial and bipartisan spirit in Salem for the past two years is coming to an end as Democrats retake firm control of Oregon's state government on Monday.

In the state House, an even split between Republicans and Democrats forced the parties to resolve every issue with a bipartisan agreement. Controversial legislation had no chance of passing, and many bills died in the chaos.

Not anymore.

When the 77th Legislature convenes, it will feature a more liberal House and a more conservative Senate. And the same Democratic governor who orchestrated a string of big legislative victories with the last group of lawmakers will still be in office.

Monday's events in Salem are largely ceremonial. Thirty senators and 60 representatives will take the oath of office, adopt rules and formally elect a Senate president and House speaker who were already selected by Democratic lawmakers last year. They won't do any real business until the legislative session begins Feb. 4.

Gov. John Kitzhaber will discuss his agenda in a State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate. Supreme Court justices also will attend.

Senators are expected to select Democrat Peter Courtney of Salem for an unprecedented sixth term as Senate president. The Democrats' choice for House speaker, Tina Kotek of Portland, would be first openly gay woman to preside over a state legislative chamber in the U.S.

It's impossible to predict the dynamics and outcomes of the Legislature at this stage, said Courtney, who is the state's longest-serving legislator after three decades in the Capitol.

"It's like a sport, every season is different," Courtney said. "I don't know how the season's going to go. You never know."

Of the 90 lawmakers, just 16 will be new to their jobs.

Still, the playing field this year will be significantly different than it was for the last two.

Kotek will lead a House with 34 Democrats and 26 Republicans — a solid Democratic majority after the party picked up four GOP-held seats in November and ended a 30-30 tie created in the 2010 election. As a result of that tie, lawmakers worked out a power-sharing agreement that required leaders from both parties to agree before any legislation could advance. Republicans didn't have enough power to pass their own priorities without Democratic support, but they effectively blocked initiatives they opposed.

Democrats will now have a much better chance of passing their priority legislation.

House and Senate leaders say they'll try to maintain some of the collegiality despite the Democrats' solid control. Kotek and Courtney both appointed Republican chairmen to lead a handful of committees.

"Whether you're in Ontario or you're in Astoria, we all want good schools, we want to put people back to work," Kotek said. "Those are the issues we're going to focus on, and I think we'll have a very productive session."

That fractious environment could shift to the Senate, where the Democrats have a much smaller 16-14 majority and the Republican caucus has gotten more conservative. Some of the moderate Republicans, including Frank Morse of Albany and Jason Atkinson of Central Point, were replaced by more conservative Republicans.

Republicans hope they can occasionally sway moderate Democrats to their side.

"The definition of moderate Democrat will be put to the test," said Sen. Ted Ferrioli of John Day, the Republican leader. "Will it be as rare as Big Foot sightings? Is it just rumors and innuendo? Or are there really moderate Democrats? We're going to find out."

The act of bringing together all three branches of government Monday morning is important symbolically, Courtney said, to remind the state's decision-makers that they're all responsible for fostering a functional government despite the inherent tension of checks and balances.

"It's a statement about Oregon and her people and her government and how we function," Courtney said. "It is very special. It is very important. And it does remind all of us that there are two other branches. We need those two other branches; they need us."