Oregon House convenes; squabbles over committee appointments

Claire Withycombe

EO Media Capital Bureau

In the year’s first meeting of the Oregon House of Representatives in Salem Monday, Jan. 9, members of both parties acknowledged the legislative session’s imminent hurdles and called for communication across party lines, despite a disagreement over Oregon House rules regarding committee assignments.

The 60 members of the house, including 14 new state representatives, took the oath of office Monday morning. They reconvened in the afternoon to review nearly 800 bills.

Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, voted Speaker of the House for a third time, acknowledged the “enormity” of the Legislature’s tasks in the upcoming session, which formally kicks off Feb. 1.

Several high-stakes issues are looming, including a $1.8 billion budget shortfall, a $22 billion unfunded liability in the state’s public employee retirement system, low graduation rates and a tough rental housing market.

Kotek encouraged her colleagues to listen to one another and to their constituents, especially to those with perspectives different from their own; and to “engage in robust, constructive debate.”

Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, nominated House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, for Speaker of the House. McLane lost to Kotek by 10 votes.

Buehler criticized the “tone” of the previous legislative session in his nomination remarks and said the Legislature faced challenges requiring leadership, including the unfunded liability of the state’s retirement system for public employees, “a revenue system which is just not getting the job done,” and a lack of affordable housing.

He also criticized the discontinuation of the House Committee on Rural Communities, Land Use and Water, of which McLane was a member.

Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, later said the committee was the creation of House Democrats and was not in place when he entered the Legislature in 2004.

Legislators chose Holvey, who replaces now-State Treasurer Tobias Read, over Oregon Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, as Speaker Pro Tempore.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, also called for bipartisanship in remarks in support of Olson, saying working across party lines was the answer to roadblocks such as the PERS “debacle,” affordable housing and environmental issues.

“All these things, the magic that will get us there, is bipartisanship,” Bentz said.

Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, objected to the adoption of Oregon House rules, in particular the role of the speaker in making committee assignments.

The speaker appoints both majority and minority party members to committees.

The speaker is required to appoint the same proportion of majority to minority members to committees as are in the Oregon House as a whole.

Legislative committees review legislation in specific policy areas. The dispute followed some hubbub in late December over the removal of Buehler from the House Committee on Human Services and Housing.

Republicans contended that Buehler was removed due to his skepticism of rent control, while the Speaker’s office said at the time that Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon, was removed in order to serve as a member of a Human Services budget subcommittee that meets at the same time.

Holvey said that the new rules include provisions requiring the speaker of the house to consult with party caucus offices about committee choices.

He also said the idea of having caucuses make committee appointments “seemed practically, very, very difficult to accomplish,” and that Kotek had made a practice of reaching out to members of the House to learn their committee preferences.