Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney has long praised the Oregon Legislature for its unhampered accessibility. It left visitors and activists from other states nostalgic for a time when citizens could easily approach the people governing their daily lives. That all came to an end during the 2021 session, yet amazingly, Courtney still claimed that the Oregon Legislature remained accessible.

To an extent that could be a correct assertion, but it shows a large degree of ignorance, especially when many Oregonians lack reliable high-speed internet access to participate in the process. Instead of having their voices heard at the Capitol this session, Oregon’s legislative leaders shut out low-income and disenfranchised Oregonians.

Democrats praised the session as one of the most accessible sessions in the state’s history because the use of technology made it more accessible. Nevermind that they didn’t address the fact that not all Oregonians have the technology to participate in a quasi-virtual legislative session. Ironically, legislators and their staff receive taxpayer-purchased computers and technology that allowed them to participate with little difficulty or personal expense. They also had access to their offices and taxpayer-funded internet. Oregon lawmakers also received their daily $151 session per diem as if they were in Salem every day during session.

Republican lawmakers had an opportunity to make this a serious issue and question the validity of the 2021 session on moral and ethical grounds. Instead, the messaging and arguments were haphazard and unclear. State Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, pledged to vote “no” on every bill until the Capitol was opened back up to the public. This caused Heard to receive some blowback from his colleagues who wished to see some of their token bills pass unanimously. While voting “no” on well-meaning bills may seem unnecessary, Heard’s intentions should not have been discredited.

Like many of his Republican colleagues, Heard represents a largely rural district where many of his constituents do not have reliable access to high-speed internet. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, constituents without internet could not go to their local library or an area business to find internet access. Not to mention, that it is difficult and rude to participate in a virtual meeting in a public space shared with others. It was nice to see a rural senator standing up for Oregonians who were put in a bad situation by those who should be making sure their constituents are heard.

It was even more perplexing that two Republican senators appeared to go after their own colleagues for speaking out, namely targeting Heard, who chairs the Oregon Republican Party. Their bill would have made it illegal and punishable by a daily fine of $250 for a lawmaker to hold a party leadership position while serving in a state office. The Senate Democratic leader joined them in this effort, and I’m sure he welcomed the Republican in-fighting and the distraction.

Regardless of the merits behind those Republican senators’ efforts, imagine if they had joined forces with Heard and their caucus to call out the Democratic supermajority for ostracizing Oregonians out of the legislative process, especially rural and low-income Oregonians. Such an effort would have undoubtedly put Democrats on the defensive and probably would have created some positive change to the openness of the session.

Unfortunately, that never took place and the session concluded with no one from the public in the building they’re paying for. As a state, we can and should do better.

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Evan Bryan is a former Legislative Director at the Oregon State Senate. He holds a master’s degree in Legislative Affairs from George Washington University.

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