The Incredible Disappearing Legislature!

Most of Portland's politicians started this week on the lam.

On Monday, the Democratic caucus of the House of Representatives went on strike, which meant that urban Ds were hiding from Republican Seeker of the House Mark Simmons.

They were denying the Republicans the necessary quorum (two-thirds of the members) to vote on a Republican redistricting maneuver.

Rep. Randy Leonard was screening his calls. Rep. Deborah Kafoury was answering her cell phone in an unnaturally deep voice. Rep. Jeff Merkley, busted once at home, vowed to answer his phone in Spanish.

Both sides tried to get the upper PR hand.

Dan Gardner, the Democratic minority leader, summoned the media to charge the Republicans with playing fast and loose with the constitution.

The Speaker held his own press conference from the audience galley above the House floor to emphasize the empty chambers. Democratic staffers rushed into the room and sat in their bosses' seats to deny his intended visual backdrop.

The fuss, not surprisingly, is over the most partisan issue of the session, redrawing the legislative boundaries.

Here's how things were supposed to go: The Republicans, who control both the House and Senate, would pass a bill with Republican-friendly boundaries. Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber would veto it. The plan would then go to Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat, who would draw up a new proposal. Republicans would challenge that plan in court, saying Bradbury favored the Democrats.

Under that scenario, the judge assigned to the case would see only Bradbury's plan, not the Republicans'.

Republican Rep. Max Williams, a lawyer with Miller Nash, says he wondered if the Oregon Constitution allowed for another route, one that would bypass the governor. Last week, at the Speaker's request, legislative counsel Gregory Chaimov issued an opinion that the constitution is, in fact, a little unclear.

"It is, I think, a fair ground for debate about whether the constitution reads to allow the Legislature to reapportion through a measure that doesn't go to the governor," says Chaimov. "Now, I don't happen to think that's the correct interpretation of the constitution, but I don't think it's a reading that can dismissed out of hand."

The GOP majority tested its theory last week, passing their redistricting plan out of the House Rules Committee in the form of a resolution, which, unlike a bill, doesn't need the governor's signature. If the resolution were approved by the Legislature, Democrats would sue, but the courts would be judging the Republicans' plan, not Bradbury's. That's why the Democrats played hooky.

While the first day of the walkout brought out some giddiness, everyone was clear that they were engaged in serious business.

Resolutions are usually the kinds of proclamations that are rolled up in red ribbon, not setting forth serious policy. This session's resolutions, for example, included a declaration that Pacific City is the pinochle capitol of the world. Now, both Chaimov and the Attorney General's office have issued opinions stating that the resolution plan is probably not constitutional.

Democrats say the walkout is their only tactical choice.

"The Oregon Constitution doesn't provide any means to filibuster," says Merkley. "If the majority party abuses the process, this is the Oregon version of the filibuster."

Technically, the Speaker has the right to send the Sergeant at Arms to round up the errant lawmakers, but at this point he has done little more than rattle his sword. The governor could call out the state police, but he refuses to do so. Still, Merkley and other Democrats have cancelled public appearances and are laying low.

This game of chicken can't go on forever. Lawmakers must approve a redistricting plan by July 1 or it goes directly to the secretary of state's office. Simmons and Gardner have been meeting to come up with a plan to end the standoff, but most observers say the Speaker has boxed himself into a corner. He is either going to have to concede or let the clock run out. --Patty Wentz


"It seems like Shakespeare's Juliet: The bill borrowed the image of death but was not, in fact, dead."

--State Rep. Lane Shetterly (R-Dallas) commenting on a proposal to turn a childcare tax credit into a refund, which had a resurrection last week.


* At a press conference on Friday, that wacky Gov. John Kitzhaber brandished a cell phone playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" to indicate that he won't veto the new bill put forth by the gang of lobbyists pushing a Major League Baseball stadium for Portland. The plan pays for part of the stadium by tapping into the future income tax of the players, stadium staff and marketing pros. The bill, which is not yet assigned to a committee, also guarantees that any shortfall would be made up by Paul Allen--oops, we mean the "as-yet-unknown team owner."

* The state's pollution tax credit was due to sunset at the end of this session, but Oregon businesses are clinging to this government subsidy. Critics, including Gov. Kitzhaber, have long complained that the credit rewards businesses for merely following the law. (If Oregon citizens got the same tax breaks as Oregon businesses, we'd all get a 50 percent tax credit when we tuned up our cars to pass a DEQ emissions test.). But Kitzhaber is now agreeing to negotiate. Last Saturday a work group met that included Associated Oregon Industries, a couple of members of the House Revenue Committee and Olivia Clark of Kitzhaber's office. Shut out of the meeting was Matt Blevins of Oregon Environmental Council, which has been pushing to eliminate the credit completely.

give a damn

* It looks like there'll be no Oprah Moment for Rep. Max Williams. The Beaverton Republican, charged with striking a compromise on Measure 7, says the two sides are too far apart to agree on a bill, let alone pose for a group hug. But Williams is still hoping to round up enough votes for a watered-down version of the court-challenged ballot initiative, which would have drastically changed land-use laws.

* El Papa and Charlton Heston seem to be seeing something new in the Oregon Children's Plan. The governor's plan to provide voluntary statewide screening for moms passed the Senate with no substantial opposition. But at a House hearing last Thursday, the Oregon Catholic Conference surprised the room by opposing the bill, on the grounds that women who get prenatal care may be more likely to have an abortion. John Hellen of Oregon Gun Owners is also taking shots at the bill, saying paranoid state workers making home visits may view that gun rack in the rec room as a health hazard.

* Correction: It's hard to say which party was more offended by an error in last week's review of metro-area lawmakers ("The Good, the Bad and the Awful"), but that capital D after state Sen. Randy Miller's name should have been an R. Apologies to partisans on both sides of the aisle.

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