SALEM, ORE - Oregon lawmakers donning masks returned to the state Capitol in Salem on Tuesday, February 01, 2022 to kick off the 2022 Legislative Session, while outside dozens of protesters rallied against mask rules and other coronavirus-related restrictions.


While Democrats have proposed an ambitious and progressive agenda, the question remains whether Republicans will again use tactics to slow or halt the short session in order to block bills they oppose. However both political parties say they are cautiously optimistic of a constructive working relationship as new leaders take center stage in the Capitol.


The 35-days session began with the House Electing a new speaker : Rep. Dan Rayfield. The Democrat replaced longtime House Speaker Tina Kotek, who stepped down last month in order to focus on her campaign for Oregon governor.


" As speaker, I want to understand what motivates each of us so that I can help us work together to serve the entire state of Oregon - when we agree and, most importantly, when we don't agree," Rayfield said to his colleagues after being sworn in Tuesday morning.


The session comes in the midst of Oregon's Omicron Surge. With thousands of new COVID-19 cases reported in Oregon each day, lawmakers are keeping close watch on how it may impact the session. Quorum rules say at least 20 senators and at least 40 representatives must be present for their respective chambers to vote.


There are COVID-19 safety measures in place in the Capitol, including a mask requirement, which some Republican lawmakers have routinely criticized and refused to follow.


Those gathered outside the Capitol on Tuesday were protesting Oregon's statewide indoor mask mandate, COVID-19 vaccinations and other pandemic-related restrictions. The Statesman Journal reported that the protesters marched around the Capitol, eventually attempting to enter without face coverings in violation of the mask mandate. At one entrance, they were rebuffed by Oregon State Police officers manning a security checkpoint.


Protesters who put on masks were allowed inside, though many removed them once they were through the security checkpoint. The standoff eased after police allowed other protesters who claimed religious or medical exemptions to enter without masks.


Over the past few years the Legislature has faced a growing divide between Democrats and Republicans - marked by a broken deal to share redistricting power, accusations of gerrymandering and Republican walkouts. But this session both parties have new leadership.


In addition to Rayfield, Democratic Rep. Julie Fahey is the new House majority leader, Republican Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson is the new House minority leader and Sen. Tim Knopp is the new Republican leader for the Senate. This also marks the final session for Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat, who is the Oregon's longest-serving state lawmaker with 38 years.


" We are at a critical point in our recovery from the pandemic. During the next five weeks we will have the opportunity to support the people and the communities that were impacted the most the last couple of years," Rayfield said. " But we may have different perspectives on how to do that."


Disagreements about this year's legislative session began even before lawmakers walked through the Capitol doors.


During the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview in late-January, Republicans said traditionally  the short 35-day session is used to address budget fixes and technical issues from the previous year's long session. However, Democrats remained adamant that some larger challenges needed to be addressed immediately - including the pandemic, historic wildfires, affordable housing, access to health care and workforce disparities.


" I believe this is the most important short session we've ever had," Rayfield said. " This is why short sessions were created, to respond to crises like the ones we are facing right now."


Breese-Iverson, the House minority leader, said " tools" are on the table if Democrats continue to move forward with " big issues," like legislation requiring agricultural employers to pay overtime. In the past, these tools have included walkouts.


" If we see highly partisan and complex bills being rushed through the Legislature in February, Republicans are prepared to use the tools necessary to protect Oregonians from even more negative consequences from the majority's short-sighted policies and failed leadership," Breese-Iverson said.


This legislative session marks the first time the public is allowed to attend in-person since March 2020. Everyone entering the Capitol is expected to walk through a scanner and have their bags X-rayed. The security comes in response to a 2020 incident in which a Republican lawmaker allowed armed demonstrators into the locked building. A bill passed last year bans all firearms in the Capitol.


How much money will be spent during this five-week session remains to be seen as lawmakers await a revenue forecast scheduled for the second week of the session. However Democratic lawmakers have already estimated they could spend up to $2 billion dollars in the upcoming five weeks.


Gov. Kate Brown presented a list of spending packages during the legislative preview - which has already garnered support from Democrats - including $ 500 million set aside for the next biennium in case state revenues weaken, $ 200 million to bolster the state's workforce and help historically underserved Oregonians find career paths and $ 400 million to preserve and create affordable housing. This session will be the last for the governor, who cannot run again due to term limits.












@ Jackie San

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