As promised, I’m back with an update on HB 2903 and Oregon’s marine reserves. Buckle your seatbelt because you are in for a bumpy ride.
Back when I left you in April, everything was full steam ahead. HB 2903 had passed unanimously out of its first House committee and was sitting in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means awaiting the announcement of the state revenue forecast. To give you some context as to what that means, here is some background on the legislative process.
When a bill is created, it can be introduced in either chamber: the Senate or the House. In this case, the bill got its start in the House. Its first stop is the House floor where the bill will be read before the Chamber and referred to a policy committee for further discussion. In this case, HB 2903 was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources, and Water. Once a bill reaches committee, it needs to be scheduled for a public hearing, during which individuals may provide public testimony in reference to the bill and its objectives. Following the public hearing, the bill must be scheduled for a work session where a committee can act on a bill (e.g., make amendments or take a vote).
At this point, the committee can vote on the bill and, often, the bill will move back to the Chamber for a full vote. However, if a bill has a fiscal ask, as was the case with HB 2903, it has one more stop before it can be called for a vote on the floor: the Joint Committee on Ways and Means. There are some internal processes that go on once the bill reaches Ways and Means that we do not need to get into here. What is important is, if the bill makes its way out of its Ways and Means work session with a “do pass” recommendation, then it is ready to be put to a vote on the floor.
Once a bill successfully makes its way out of the first Chamber it then makes its way to the second, in this case, HB 2903 would have gone on to the Senate. There the bill will be read, make a procedural pitstop in Ways and Means, and then come back to the second Chamber floor for a vote. Assuming the bill withstands all of that, it will finally be passed on to the Governor to be signed into law.
As you have probably gathered, HB 2903 did not make it that far.
The session took a sudden turn when Senate Republicans walked out on May 3rd (I’m not going to dig into it in this blog, but if you want to read more about it, you can do so here and here). In the state of Oregon, the Senate chamber must achieve a 2/3 quorum in order to vote on bills. Therefore, by walking out, Senate Republicans were able to effectively pause all bill movement in the Senate even though the Democratic party held the majority.
By the end of May, there was no sign of the Senate reaching quorum and HB 2903 was trapped in Ways and Means with nowhere to go. It was time to search for other avenues.
On top of policy bills like HB 2903, there are also bills that handle agency budgets. Passing these budgetary bills is one of the most important tasks for the State legislature. While policy bills will just die if they don’t pass during the regular session, budgetary bills must pass, and a special session will be called if the legislature cannot do so during the regular session. Therefore, Representative Gomberg, the Chair of the Coastal Caucus, got in contact with the Co-Chairs of Ways and Means and requested that the fiscal component of HB 2903 be included in HB 5509, which appropriates money from the General Fund to ODFW for a period of two years.
We knew this ask was going to be tough. Each session, the Governor’s office releases a recommended budget, which is essentially a proposal based on state revenue forecasts on how state funds should be allocated. The Governor’s office then negotiates with various parties, including legislative leaders and members of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means to generate a budget that will be voted on at the end of the session. When Governor Kotek released her recommended budget back in January, funds were looking tight, and many agencies were preparing to make cuts to afford for reduced revenues. One of those cuts was the Community Project Leader position within ODFW’s Marine Reserves program. So, the Caucus wasn’t just advocating for new funding, they were also working against a proposed cut.
On the one hand, this cut made sense: the position related to the cut had been vacant for three years. However, advocates and the Coastal Caucus argued the story around this vacancy was more complex and in part the result of two failed recruitments and a hiring freeze during the pandemic. It was the position of the Coastal Caucus that this context made the situation unique from other prolonged vacancies and that to permanently lose this position would be to permanently sever a critical connection point between coastal communities and marine reserves.
At this point, we had one last option: to advocate for the inclusion of HB 2903 and funding for cut position in the end of session budget reconciliation bill. This bill tends to be comprised of several smaller, often unrelated policies or amendments. Its tendency to have a little something for everyone gave this bill its nickname: the Christmas Tree Bill.
Around that time, the Senate returned to the floor, wrapping up the longest walkout in state history and leaving ten days to move all the remaining bills through the Senate. Now the marine reserves bill was not unpopular. In fact, it was extremely non-controversial and had a lot of community support. However, in the flurry of legislative action that followed the Senate’s return, funding for the marine reserves bill never materialized. It is unclear if under different circumstances marine reserves funding would have been given higher priority, but the pace of the final week of session certainly posed a challenge for legislators trying to negotiate for last-minute additions in the budgeting process.
I guess if I were to sum up the major lesson from this process, it would be **** happens. You can craft a bill to sail through the legislative process and a storm can come out of nowhere and sink it. In the end, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, it wasn’t because we didn’t try hard enough, there were just so many incredibly important priorities this session and ours didn’t make the cut. And that doesn’t mean the journey is over. The Coastal Caucus is still very much committed to Oregon’s Marine Reserves Program and is actively strategizing for the coming short session. I’ve learned so much from this experience and I can’t wait to see how the next iteration of this work will turn out.