SALEM — Pass or punt?

That was the question Friday, Sept. 17, as lawmakers pored over maps that may show Oregon's political future for the next decade.

Or be scrap paper in 10 days.

The clock is ticking down until a scheduled 8 a.m. Sept. 20 special session of the legislature called by Gov. Kate Brown. The House and Senate are to assemble in the capitol to approve a redistricting plan that reflects changes from the 2020 U.S. Census.

After months of discussions, 12 recent hearings, thousands of letters and alternative plans submitted by the public, time is almost up for the Legislature to have its say on redistricting.

Democrats want to pass maps they publicly released Sept. 16 in an after-hours email.

Republicans can opt to punt the mapmaking to the secretary of state and a special judicial panel. Otherwise their leverage as the minority party is limited.

Grounds for a consensus are currently non-existent, though the sides continue to talk.

"Not very much has changed in the past few days," said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, co-chair of the House Redistricting Committee.

Republicans say Democratic-drawn maps strategically partition their party's strongholds in Portland. The pieces are then added to nearby suburban or rural areas, warping districts to cement their hegemony.

Democrats counter that the maps reflect a reality of an Oregon in which the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, labor commissioner, both U.S. Senators and four of five members of Congress are Democrats.

The past decade has shown growth concentrated in the Bend area and around Portland, which have tilted increasingly toward Democrats.

The rural areas east of the Cascades and the Republican-leaning communities in the southwest have grown at a significantly slower pace.

Democrats say districts need to reflect that change.

Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, and Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, two of the top Democrats on the redistricting committees said the proposed maps were fair.

The new lines met state requirements, including districts that "reflect the diversity of communities of interest in our state," 

"Our commitment is to Oregonians and our job is to produce fair and representative maps that reflect Oregon’s population growth, align with statutory and constitutional criteria, and ensure public participation," they wrote.

The maps still did not have a starting point to make their way through the Legislature as of Friday night.

The Legislature's official website did not include a special session until mid-day Sept. 17. It shows the House and the Senate scheduled to meet on Sept. 20 at 8 a.m. But no measures, committees and other details were to be found.

Oregon is the only state on the Pacific where the Legislature draws political lines. Independent commissions do the job in California and Washington, Hawaii has a bipartisan panel, and Alaska has a single congressional district.

Oregon follows the more traditional plan of state lawmakers drawing and approving maps, which are subject to a veto of the governor.

A late as January 2020, it looked like a slam-dunk process for a state with Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate, and Brown, a Democrat in the governor's chair.

COVID-19, a delayed U.S. Census, a political deal in the House, and a crossfire of claims of partisanship have made the process a mess.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled the legislature could try to approve a plan, but gave it a Sept. 27 deadline.

At stake is the makeup of 30 House and 60 senate districts that must be shrunk, stretched or shifted to meet state and federal laws requiring approximately equal-sized districts.

The work is complicated this time by a sixth congressional seat awarded Oregon because of its population growth.

When Democrats released their maps, the congressional layout was a flashpoint. The current five districts are represented by four Democrats and one Republican.

The new Democratic plan would leave the one Republican, U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, with the bulk of Republican strongholds in the east and southwest.

Using what in political slang is called "cracking," Democrats redrew the map to slice off portions of the Portland area to add four congressional districts. Each of the new districts was won by President Joe Biden by margins that ranged from 14.3% to 43.2%. The other district, centered around Eugene, went for Biden by 13.6%.

Barring a breakthrough no one expects, Republicans are left with two options:

Attend the special session, try to keep the plans in committee, and if that fails, put up an extended public fight with speeches and motions. But the most likely outcome is all three plans are passed and approved by Brown.

The alternative is to boycott the session, resulting in not enough lawmakers present to form a quorum to meet at all. Oregon is one of the few states that does not have a simple majority as the threshold for a quorum.

The second option would derail the legislative efforts no later than Sept. 27.

After that, the legislative maps would be drawn by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and the congressional maps by a special panel of judges appointed by Chief Justice Walters.

While Fagan has promised a fair map and wants to have a People's Commission help with the choices, Republicans expect a partisan result from Fagan, a former Democratic state senator from Portland.

Republicans would hope the judges' panel would come up with maps that would result in a 4-2 Democratic-leaning delegation.

While an announcement could be made over the weekend, Boshart Davis said it would likely come down to Sept. 20.

While saying she hoped the legislature would draw the maps, that will depend on Republicans arriving at the Capitol. Will they?

"That's a good question," she said.

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