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Oregon Senate Democrats shuffle leadership ahead of November election

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, right, is stepping down from her role as a key budget writer. She'll be replaced by Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, left.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, right, is stepping down from her role as a key budget writer. She’ll be replaced by Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, left.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon Senate Democrats are planning a leadership shuffle in coming weeks, as the chamber’s top budget writer steps down from the role to focus on a statewide campaign.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, announced Monday she would resign her role as co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee on July 15. The influential committee decides how billions of dollars in state funds are spent.

Steiner’s announcement quickly triggered another that had been weeks in the making. Senate President Rob Wagner announced that Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, will be stepping into the budget-writing job — and away from her role steering Senate Democrats’ campaigns this year.

“This was not an easy choice for me,” said Lieber, who has served as majority leader since November 2022. “But I also know that I have not been one to shy away from a challenge, and I think that this is going to be a challenging year in the budget cycle.”

The change raises the question of who will now replace Lieber in helping guide Senate Democrats’ policy and political agendas. Sens. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, and Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, are said to be interested in the job.

Steiner told OPB on Monday that she no longer has the time to devote to stewarding the state’s budget as she continues a run to succeed Tobias Read as the next state treasurer. Steiner won the Democratic nomination for treasurer last month, and faces fellow state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, in the November general election.

“I don’t have many hours right now to devote to this properly,” Steiner said in an interview. “It’s important that the person who’s doing this can truly focus on it as opposed to being distracted by running a statewide race.”

Key to her decision, Steiner said, was giving her replacement plenty of time to get up to speed on the job before lawmakers convene in 2025 to craft a new two year-budget. That’s a buffer that Steiner said she didn’t get when she was selected as a top budget writer in late 2018.

“There was no transition. There was no succession planning, and that was problematic in a whole host of ways,” Steiner said. “I didn’t want to do that to my successor, and I wanted to be sure that my successor had access to me and so that I could really help whoever it is.”

Lieber told OPB in an interview that she won office in 2020 hoping to play a role in state budgeting. As a freshman lawmaker, Lieber was named co-chair of a subcommittee that crafts a budget for the state’s human services agencies. In that role she helped pass a massive package aimed at shoring up the state’s flagging mental health services.

Given her interest in budgeting, Lieber said it was a “left turn” when she became majority leader, a role that traditionally deals in policy rather than finances. She noted that she has still been engaged on budgeting, including when she helped write a $211 million spending package as part of an overhaul of state drug laws that she led this year.

Lieber said Wagner approached her to suggest she take over for Steiner.

“We’re going to try to have a really thoughtful transition,” Lieber said, adding an election to replace her as majority leader would occur before July 15.

In a statement, Wagner called Lieber “a thoughtful legislator who cares about making sure all sides and perspectives are taken into consideration before a final decision is made.”

Steiner began her role as lead budget-writer alongside another Senate Democrat, former state Sen. Betsy Johnson of Warren. That atypical arrangement meant the budget committee had three co-chairs — two senators and one representative — rather than the normal two.

It also coincided with tax receipts that surged beyond expectations. As a result Steiner helped oversee a major increase in the cash sitting in Oregon’s rainy day fund — from $671 million when she was appointed to around $1.7 billion today.

Even though the Legislature is not in session, Steiner estimated she still spends 20 hours a week in the role of budget co-chair, consulting with state agencies about possible budgetary requests and approving grant applications.

Beginning July 15, she’ll swap out that work for campaigning around the state.

“I believe I’m going to win,” Steiner said, “and I’m going to run like I’m going to lose.”

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