Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, presides over the House during the opening day of the Legislature on Feb. 1, 2022. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Oregon Legislature started its 2022 session on Tuesday with optimistic speeches about bipartisanship and warning shots over a farmworker overtime proposal as protesters rallied against vaccine mandates outside the Capitol in Salem.

Leaders in the Senate and House gaveled shortly after 8 a.m., beginning a 35-day countdown to pass bills and spend about $1.5 billion in available money. Masks, limited attendance and the protesters rallying outside served as a reminder that Covid continues, but legislators were looking ahead to a post-pandemic future. 

“We’re at a critical point in our recovery from the pandemic,” said newly-elected House Speaker Dan Rayfield. “During the next five weeks, we will have the opportunity to support the people and the communities that were impacted the most by the last couple years. We may have different perspectives on how best to do that.”

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, ordered the Senate galleries closed to the public on Tuesday, the only day the full Senate is scheduled to meet this week, “out of an abundance of caution to reduce the risk of possible Covid-19 transmission,” according to his office. The House galleries reopened to the public, but Tuesday’s session saw only a smattering of legislators’ guests. 

Legislators will spend the next several days in virtual committee meetings, which provide the main opportunity for Oregonians to comment on legislation that will affect their lives. Any bill that hasn’t received committee approval by Feb. 7 is dead for the year, as are any bills that don’t pass their chamber of origin by Feb. 14.

Money money money

Lawmakers expect to have about $1.5 billion to spend before going home in March, said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, the Beaverton Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s budget-writing committee. Tax revenue substantially higher than budgeted actually brought in closer to $2.5 billion extra, but state law requires them to stash about $250 million in a rainy day fund and lawmakers want to carry another $500 million to the next two-year budget cycle that begins in 2023, anticipating higher costs.

Out of the extra revenue, Brown has proposed spending $200 million to get more Oregonians working in high-paying jobs, $400 million to build more affordable homes and $120 million to relocate a Portland middle school. Legislators have their own wish lists, and Steiner Hayward said it’s still early to tell who will get their wish.

She wants to make sure the state doesn’t start programs it can’t afford in the future, and said a lot of this session’s spending should be one-time costs instead of new ongoing expenses such as new state jobss. 

“We want to be very, very prudent about making sure that we’re not starting programs just to cut them off next year,” Steiner Hayward said. 

New leader in the House

Rayfield, D-Corvallis, took the gavel as House speaker after 32 Democrats in the 60-member House voted for him to replace the departed Tina Kotek. He described his unorthodox path to the speakership, which started when his father and mother divorced when he was infant. His father, a Republican, served as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves.s His mother was a progressive feminist who was arrested protesting at a Nevada nuclear test site.

“I spent my childhood flying back and forth between those two homes, and it gave me an early lesson in how two people can have similar goals but approach them from vastly different places,” he said. “My mom protested nuclear weapons to keep the world safe. My dad supported them because he thought they were needed to keep the world safe.”

He said he wanted to bring that childhood lesson to the Oregon House, and he wants to understand what motivates each legislator so he could help them work together for the state.

“I believe that we are all here because we want to do good for Oregon, and it is important to me that we give the measure of grace that comes with recognizing that in all of us,” he said. 

Rayfield’s mother struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction when he was young, but she worked toward sobriety, quitting her job to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings during the day and cleaning houses and businesses at night. He was there, sleeping on the couch of a hair salon while she cleaned in the middle of the night.

By high school, Rayfield was struggling with attention deficit disorder and physical abuse from a stepparent, and he started drinking and experimenting with drugs, he said. He was arrested four times, didn’t graduate from high school on time and failed college after two semesters. 

He took a job as a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disney World, only to be fired because, as he tells it, his jokes were that bad. 

“There are so many Oregonians who find themselves where I was two decades ago – except for the Disney World part,” he said. “I stand before you as someone who has been in that dark place, who has been called ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’ by my own family, who relates to the financial anxiety that so many of our students go through because I am still paying off my own student debt, who felt like an absolute failure. 

But I also stand before you as living proof that the worst moments of our lives don’t have to be our destiny.”

Rayfield is now an attorney, and one of the most powerful people in state government. 

For the speakership, most Republicans voted for Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson of Prineville, while Redmond Republican Jack Zika nominated Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley.

Bynum received just four votes – from herself, Zika, newly appointed Rep. Travis Nelson, D-Portland, and Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn. She compared her loss, and the expectation that all Democrats would support Rayfield, to centuries of oppression faced by Black people, including slavery. 

“I told myself, ‘At least I won’t be standing on an auction block wondering if they’d sell my children away from me,’” she said. “I had to go back to an unthinkable time in America’s history and tell myself my pain wasn’t as great as those who had come before me.”

Heartburn over farmworker overtime, masks

A handful of Republican legislators used the first day to warn Democrats against proceeding with a plan to phase in overtime pay for farmworkers working more than 40 hours a week. Most workers receive pay at one-and-a-half times their normal hourly rate for working more than 40 hours, but agricultural workers are still exempt. 

Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said bipartisan negotiations hit an impasse in late November, when a nonprofit advocacy group sued the state Bureau of Labor and Industries over farmworker overtime. That lawsuit referred to a 2017 law that unintentionally deleted part of an existing law, and the Legislature should return to the 2017 status quo to continue negotiations, he said. 

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, said farmers in his northeast Oregon district were concerned about what farmworker overtime would mean for them financially. He told senators they could have a “win,” which he defined as a partisan vote, or a “victory,” which he defined as good policy. 

“I pledged to them and to you today that we would work on ag overtime, and that we would have a victory,” he said.

Republicans also grumbled about masks, though they wore them, for the most part. Rep. E Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, stood off the House floor without a mask and popped his head in to vote, but he avoided the kind of showdown that ended a December special session, when Courtney had a Senate Republican escorted from the chamber by security for not wearing a mask.

Outside was a different story. About 150 people gathered in front of the Capitol, waving signs with slogans including “no medical discrimination,” “vaxx passes are tools of modern slavery” and “unvaccinated lives matter” for several hours.

As their scheduled protest wrapped up around 3 p.m., several dozen demonstrators moved toward the Capitol’s east entrance, trying to enter the building. More than a dozen state troopers gathered on the other side of the door, turning away anyone who tried to enter without a mask.

After about 30 minutes, police pulled back and began letting people in individually if they put on masks or said they had medical exemptions. A handful of maskless protesters took selfies in the Capitol rotunda before leaving the building.

Reporter Alex Baumhardt of the Oregon Capital Chronicle contributed reporting.

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