Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) says this year's session of the Oregon Legislature was a triumph—but one that left the state bitterly divided than urban and rural interests.
Kotek spoke at the Portland City Club forum on Friday afternoon in downtown Portland to a crowd of roughly 200 people, reviewing the legislative session that left the Capitol starkly split along party lines.
"More significant legislation passed this year than any session in the past decade, and probably the last several decades," Kotek said. She added that despite the partisan drama that unfolded in Salem, "the Legislature delivered for this state."
Among the triumphs she touted were the new $1 billion tax hike for schools, a bill that will increase duplex and triplex homes in areas formerly reserved for single-family homes, and changes to the state's juvenile justice system that will eradicate the automatic placement of a minor in adult facilities under Measure 11 criminal charges.
But Kotek also called the session "exhausting and dramatic, with an emphasis on the dramatic" and was questioned by people in the audience who expressed alarm over the internal strife that has plagued the Legislature since the beginning of the year.
Several attendees questioned Kotek about the failure of House Bill 2020, the carbon cap and trade bill that died once it reached the state Senate. Kotek said that the spread of misinformation about what the bill would do—and who it would affect—undermined the bill.
"I don't know if we can get over some of the fear of the bill but we're going to have to try," Kotek said. "This has now become a partisan issue in a way that has really not been helpful."
Republicans fear that the cap and trade bill requiring some companies to pay "allowances" for every ton of greenhouse gas emissions released would kill Oregon's natural resources economy. Democrats see it as a necessary measure to impede climate change.
In June, Republican senators left the state in order to deny Democrats a quorum on the carbon cap. That tactic erupted into a national story, especially after one senator implied he'd shoot to kill any state trooper sent to fetch him.
Kotek said the Republican walkout was "disappointing."
The partisan split was a common theme during Kotek's appearance today. Another person brought up the massive divide between rural and urban Oregonians. Kotek responded that the answer was to "keep talking, keep listening, keep communicating."
When asked about the bill's failure once it reached the Senate, Kotek maintained that 'the climate bill is the priority for this state, it has to be the priority." Kotek hinted that some of her Republican constituents weren't doing right by the communities they were elected to represent.
"There are forces in this state that do not want this bill to pass, and I don't think it's average Oregonians who want that," Kotek said. "We are facing a shrinking time window to do our part to fight climate destruction. All these other things don't make sense if we don't have a planet."
Kotek is widely rumored in Salem to be preparing to leave office. But no one at the City Club forum asked her about her plans, and she didn't address them.
Kotek called the session "truly historic" but acknowledged the drama between political parties in Salem.
"I hope this is a blip, I really do," Kotek said of the Republican absence, but insisted that the legislative session overshadowed the drama. "I hope and actually believe [it] will become a historical footnote to what we did this legislative session."