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Legislators prove compromise can be done

The deal struck in Salem last week between majority Democrats and minority Republicans is the kind of compromise that is rare these days. Politicians in Washington, D.C., should take note.

Because the Oregon Constitution requires two-thirds of senators and representatives be present to conduct business, the minority party can halt the entire process by walking out.

In addition to that drastic measure, which minority Republicans have employed repeatedly in recent years, the constitution also requires that every bill before the Legislature be read aloud in its entirety before it can be voted on. It has been common practice for many years to waive that requirement, but only if two-thirds of members agree. Republicans have been selectively refusing to do that this session, delaying action on bills the Democrats otherwise could easily pass.

This year is especially important to both parties because lawmakers must redraw legislative and congressional districts to align with the results of the 2020 Census.

In a surprise deal reached last week, Republicans voted to waive the bill-reading requirement, and House Speaker Tina Kotek announced she was adding a Republican member to the House redistricting committee, making the panel evenly split between the parties. She also elevated one Republican member to be co-chair.

That means Democrats cannot pass a redistricting map out of committee without Republican agreement.

Redistricting is not supposed to favor one party over another, but in practice it’s very hard to draw new boundaries that satisfy everyone. This compromise will require the agreement of at least one Republican.

If the Legislature fails to adopt new maps, the constitution hands the job to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat. Republicans therefore have an incentive to reach an agreement to prevent that from happening.

It’s worth noting that the only time in the last century that the Legislature succeeded in passing a redistricting plan was in 2011, when the House was evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. That’s no guarantee they will be able to do it again, but the odds are better with an evenly divided committee.

The deal also gives Republicans a say in drawing the boundaries of what is expected to be a sixth congressional district, because the state’s population has increased since the 2010 Census.

With any luck, this may be the last time lawmakers will face a battle over redistricting. An initiative campaign that would have created an independent redistricting commission failed to make the ballot last fall because the pandemic hampered signature gathering. A Republican-backed bill to refer the question to voters is still alive in the Legislature, although Democrats don’t want to give up the power to draw new boundaries. If the measure doesn’t pass, backers of an independent commission will likely mount another signature drive.

Other states, including Washington and California, have already taken this step. Considering that unaffiliated voters in Oregon now outnumber Republicans and nearly equal Democrats, it no longer makes sense to leave the redistricting process in the hands of partisan legislators.

Until the state’s voters have their say, the compromise reached last week may be the best we can do.