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Oregon House Will Use Computers to Read Bills Aloud After Another COVID-19 Case in the Capitol

Speaker Tina Kotek’s enlisting of computers appears to be a direct response to complaints that GOP stall tactic endangered lawmakers' health.

A second case of COVID-19 identified among people who have been inside the Oregon Capitol has canceled Monday's floor session of the state House of Representatives.

The news of a second diagnosis arrived less than 24 hours before state representatives were scheduled to resume in-person sessions in the House chamber. Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) said she canceled Monday's session "out of an abundance of caution."

It was not clear from emails sent by state officials whether the second diagnosis had been traced to the first, which canceled House sessions for a week. (Kotek's office declined to elaborate, citing medical privacy.) By sending Oregon representatives home, state leaders have been hoping to avoid an outbreak such as the one in the Idaho Legislature, which has sickened at least six lawmakers.

Perhaps more significantly to the shape of the remaining session, Kotek announced Sunday afternoon that computer software would read the text of bills on the House floor, in order to reduce the time people in the Capitol spend exposed to each other in the chamber.

"The Speaker has directed the Clerk to begin using computer software to read lengthy bills upon final passage to further reduce the risk of virus transmission when the House is in session for the purpose of bill reading," chief of staff in the House Speaker's office Lindsay O'Brien wrote Sunday evening.

House Republicans, who bridle at the scope and ambition of the session and have been pushing to open the Capitol to the public, are forcing Democrats to read the full text of bills as a way of slowing down their passage. That's led to outrage from Democratic lawmakers, who say the GOP is endangering their health because they don't like losing.

The latest and most pointed volley came March 26 from House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, who wrote Kotek on March 26.

"It is not lost on our members that they were subject to potentially prolonged exposure to the virus because Republicans insist on forcing bills to be read aloud," Smith Warner wrote.

"I'm honestly baffled that the Republican response to a process they don't like is to force reading of bills on the House floor, when it doesn't even address their complaints and has increased all members' odds of being exposed to a deadly virus," she added. "Instead of improving the legislative process, these moves seem more in line with the ongoing national Republican playbook of obstructionism and disenfranchisement."

Kotek's enlisting of computers appears to be a direct response to Smith Warner's complaints.

A spokesman for the House Republicans directed WW to a prior statement from House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) that argued for their tactics as a necessary strategy to reduce the scope of the session. "Republicans have relied on the Constitution to protest a hyper-partisan, closed-door approach to public policy this session," Drazan wrote.