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Oregon redistricting talks adjourn early over COVID case

AP file photo of the Oregon Capitol in Salem.

One day after the Democratic speaker of the Oregon House rescinded a power-sharing deal she made with Republicans to redraw political maps — and as questions lingered whether GOP lawmakers would show up to work at the Capitol — legislators were sent home Tuesday following reports of a positive COVID-19 case in the building.

The House is in the midst of the once-a-decade task of redistricting, which determines how voters will pick state representatives, state senators and members of Congress for the next five election cycles. State representatives are scheduled to return to the floor at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

But whether Republicans attend the floor session or stage a walkout continues to be unsaid. If Republicans don't go to the floor of the House the chamber won't have a quorum - meaning lawmakers wouldn't be able to proceed with business. Oregon gained a sixth U.S. House seat following the latest census and the stakes are high for both parties with this round of redistricting.

House Speaker Tina Kotek came to the podium briefly Tuesday morning to say both she and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan were eager to take up congressional and legislative redistricting plans. When Kotek returned to the podium again in the afternoon she informed lawmakers that the session would be adjourned until Wednesday, as someone in the Capitol the day before had tested positive for COVID-19. Officials were conducting contact tracing and said they would be testing those who had been around the infected person.

Tensions at the Capitol in Salem, Oregon, boiled over on Monday — as lawmakers returned to the Capitol for the once-a-decade task of redistricting, which determines how voters will pick state representatives, state senators and members of Congress for the next five election cycles. Kotek's announcement to withdraw her side of a deal made with House Republicans in April drew angry reactions from GOP lawmakers.

“She lied and broke her promise not just to us but to Oregonians,” Drazan said in a statement on Monday. “She just sold the soul of our state for Democrats’ political gain.”

State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, who is now the sole Republican on the three-person House congressional redistricting committee, told The Oregonian/Oregon Liv e on Monday evening that “all tools are on the table” when asked if Republicans would stage a walkout. As of Tuesday morning, Republican lawmakers were not seen on the House floor and were noticeably missing from the hallways of the Capitol.

The looming deadline to pass new political boundaries — including a new, sixth U.S. House seat for Oregon — is Sept. 27.

With Democrats now being the majority on congressional redistricting committees and in the Legislature, they have the opportunity to pass maps they choose, which would likely give Democrats a five to one advantage in U.S. House seats. Currently, Democrats hold four of Oregon’s five House seats.

But if congressional maps are not passed by Sept. 27, the task will fall to a panel of five retired judges appointed by the Oregon Supreme Court.

“Neither (Democrats nor Republicans) really know what a five judge panel is going to do with congressional maps,” Rep. Andrea Salinas, a Democrat and member on the House redistricting committee, said earlier this month.

Both parties have used walkouts — a tool made available by the Oregon Constitution — in the past, with Republicans relying on it in recent years. Most notably in 2019, when Republicans used it to stop a cap-and-trade bill.

The deal Kotek pulled out of was agreed upon in April, during the 2021 legislative session, when the Democrat said that in exchange for the GOP to stop blocking bills with delaying tactics the House Speaker would evenly split the House Redistricting Committee — essentially granting veto power to the GOP.

In a statement Kotek said she was “disappointed that after many months of work, House Republicans did not engage constructively despite many attempts to address their concerns” and lead to her decision to void the standing deal.

The maps in question passed through the Senate on Monday, without Republican support.

The Democrats’ map proposes that new congressional District 6 should be south of Portland, Oregon’s biggest city, and west of Interstate 5. Republicans also put it south of Portland, but on the east side of the interstate.

In addition to the six congressional districts, lawmakers are also responsible for passing 90 legislative districts which determines how voters pick state representatives and state senators.

If the legislative maps are not passed by Monday, the task will fall to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a progressive Democrat who few Republicans would want to see in charge of that process

Lawmakers have succeeded in passing redistricting plans just twice since 1911.


Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.