SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s 2020 legislative session imploded Thursday amid a boycott by minority Republicans over a climate change measure, an action they have taken repeatedly and which Democrats say threatens democratic rule.
In response, Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, is finalizing executive actions that will reduce Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions, House Speaker Tina Kotek told the chamber as the session ended early. The GOP walkout resulted in not only the bill aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions being killed, but many other measures, including on gun control and housing for the homeless.
Frustration boiled into the open after Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., said his party would return on Sunday only to vote on emergency budget bills. At a news conference, Democratic lawmakers, some struggling to keep their composure, said representative democracy is at stake by repeated use of walkouts to deny a quorum and freeze all legislation.
“It’s a historical precedent that I think shows us where we’re headed and … that anytime they are not happy with any sort of bill, our government is going to be shut down,” said Rep. Diego Hernandez, a Democrat from Portland.
Senate President Peter Courtney took the podium and responded to Baertschiger’s offer by declaring the session over.
“All of us are going to be in history one day as the Legislature that failed the fifth short session,” Courtney said. This was the fifth short session since even-year 35-day sessions began in 2012.
Courtney vowed to try to take away the ability to deny a quorum through walkouts.
“I’m going to make it clear: you’re not going to walk out of the Legislature in terms of sessions,” Courtney said. “You’re not, because we are going to have to find a way, tragically, to have legislations or constitutional amendments that stop it.”
Kotek accused the Republicans of violating their constitutional duty of voting on bills on the House floor.
“We have been held hostage by a small group of elected representatives,” she said as the 2020 session ended early.
“We will not reconvene on the House floor,” Kotek said. “Instead, we must pursue a different path to address the most urgent health and safety needs facing our state.”
She and Courtney, both Democrats, expect a short session to be called to deal with some critical issues. A committee would deal with emergency funding on Monday in the Statehouse.
Courtney said a second special session might also be held to change the quorum rules. Oregon is one of only four states that require two-thirds of lawmakers be present for any work to be done, instead of a simple majority. Democrats have a majority in both the state Senate and House but not enough seats to establish a quorum if the Republicans boycott.
Baertschiger, speaking to reporters via a video call from an undisclosed location, spoke against lawmakers using walkouts, even though Republicans did two walkouts in 2019 — to try to kill a different version of the climate bill and one on an education-funding tax — and both House and Senate Republicans walked out during this short session.
“This denial of quorum, it scares me to death. I think it’s going to be abused,” he said.
Asked if the comment was ironic, Baertschiger replied that 28 mostly rural counties passed resolutions asking Republican lawmakers to try to kill the climate bill. Opponents of the bill say the plan to charge polluters for carbon credits would raise fuel costs for consumers.
Republicans have insisted that any climate change legislation go before voters. Democrats, who wield a supermajority in both the Senate and the House, had made climate legislation a priority to reduce emissions in Oregon of greenhouse gases that are causing global warming.
The walkout torpedoed legislation that was sometimes months and even years in the making.
At the press conference, Democratic Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon spoke of legislation that would have sent flood aid to rural eastern Oregon, assisted the homeless, and phased out a carcinogenic pesticide that harms farmworkers. She also spoke of legislation that would have provided her hometown of Woodburn, which is primarily Latino, a community center for the first time.
“That can’t happen because our colleagues choose not to come to work,” Alonso Leon said.
Rep. Tawna Sanchez, a Native American from Portland, said: “I’m trying really, really hard not to be angry. It’s very frustrating when you know all the bills, all the different things that are sitting there waiting — to just go away.”
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky