FILE — Oregon Capitol in springtime

The Oregon state Capitol building in Salem in springtime.

(The Center Square) – How fast can you read through a 170-page bill? That very question is what has Oregon House Democrats on edge as the pandemic ignites tensions over workplace safety.

Even in the pandemic, Oregon lawmakers are bound by the state constitution to convene face to face for floor votes and sending bills in and out of committee. The scenario is especially precarious for the Oregon House where two COVID cases shut down floor business for more than a week.

Bill readings, which can have the House clerk reading aloud for hours at a time, can be waived by a two-thirds majority vote in the chamber. This session, the chamber's Republican minority have denied that majority, sparking outrage from Democrats concerned about more cases.  

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, has turned bill readings into a bargaining chip, demanding that Democrats allow her peers more time to speak in virtual committee hearings and spend the session prioritizing bipartisan bills.

Tensions boiled over on Tuesday in the House where Democrats tried to send a 170-page bill requested by Gov. Kate Brown and state regulators that would rename the Oregon Liquor Control Commission the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission back to committee. The motion, failing along party lines, saw Democrats turn to a computer to complete the bill reading as lawmakers returned to their offices.

The bill reading took some seven hours to complete. Though falling short of the "speed-reading" state lawmakers may have envisioned, it did garner a reaction from Drazan, who announced on Tuesday her caucus would suspend readings for budget bills still weeks away from the floor.

"As legislators, our priority is to help Oregonians with programs and support that they need, especially after a year of the pandemic and natural disasters," Drazan said. "Part of this commitment is to ensure we have a balanced budge prior to our constitutional deadline before adjourning this session."

Similar attempts to automate bill readings in the Colorado Legislature this month were deemed unconstitutional by the state's Supreme Court. It remains to be seen what legal challenges will beset the Oregon Legislature's experiment with computerized readings, if any. 

Dru Draper, a spokesperson for the Oregon Senate GOP caucus, said the incident was a "bed of bad priorities" of Democrats' own making for a bill that deserved to die. The bill was voted down twice by House Democrats on Tuesday and read in full thanks to House Republicans denying them a two-thirds majority vote.

Draper's comments drew a retort from state Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard, who posted her thoughts via a series of Tweets and animal videos that have come to characterize her Twitter timeline. 

Grayber also echoed her colleagues' sentiments that enough was enough.

"Is that what this is about?" Grayber said. "Control? We were elected to get work done. I ran to make a difference, not to be held hostage by a minority." 

The Tigard lawmaker brought up a number of bills, bipartisan and otherwise, her peers are eager to pass this session if bill readings can be helped. They include legislation requiring the Oregon Health Authority to guarantee reimbursement of telemedicine services in the pandemic, allowing wildfire survivors to prorate their property taxes, and limiting cost-sharing for health coverage of insulin.

A number of bills in the Oregon Senate this session would slap fines on walkout protesters in the chamber where Senate Republicans have resorted to their own brand of absentee obstruction. One bill would send a constitutional amendment to voters reworking the Senate's quorum rules allowing lawmakers to convene with a simple majority.

As of this week, the Oregon Legislature passed the halfway mark for this session which adjourns June 27.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.