Democrats in Oregon have held the majority in the state Legislature for many years. And a Republican hasn’t won a governor’s race since 1982. The options for influencing legislation are limited for a minority party. In recent sessions, Republican lawmakers have walked out to deny the chamber a quorum to effectively block a vote on legislation they oppose, preventing the session from moving forward. And while both parties have employed the tactic when they were in the minority, GOP lawmakers have walked out multiple times in recent years to block legislation aimed at curbing the effects of climate change. Now a measure to prevent legislative walkouts has qualified for the Oregon ballot, after supporters submitted their signatures in late May, well ahead of the Friday, July 8 deadline. OPB political reporter Dirk VanderHart joins us to tell us more about this measure and a gun safety measure which could also be headed to the Oregon ballot.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with a proposal to amend Oregon’s constitution. It’s aimed at preventing lawmakers from walking out of the capital. It is the most powerful tool that Republicans in the Legislature have had. They have used it repeatedly in recent years to prevent supermajority Democrats from passing bills. The Oregon Secretary of State’s office announced this week that the initiative petition to prevent walkouts does have enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot. OPB politics reporter Dirk VanderHart joins us with the details. Dirk, welcome back.
Dirk VanderHart: Hey, thanks Dave. Good to be here.
Miller: Good to have you on. Before we get to this measure, I want to start with what it means that Democrats have had supermajorities in both legislative chambers in recent years. What power comes with that?
VanderHart: If Democrats can hold together, there’s a ton of power that comes with it. Of course, most bills only require a simple majority to pass. But in Oregon bills that would raise taxes require a three-fifths supermajority, which Democrats have in both chambers. They also control the Governor’s office. So, as I say, if Democrats move in lockstep, they can pass virtually any bill. A former Republican leader actually told me in 2019 that his party had become what he called ‘legislative speed bumps’ after Democrats won supermajorities in 2018. It is that dramatic.
Miller: Well, that language is actually a pretty helpful metaphor because Republicans – as we’ve actually talked about, you and I, over the years – they have used various tactics to slow down Democrats. What are those tactics?
VanderHart: Yeah, I think the primary one we’ve seen in recent years is that Republicans refuse to waive this constitutional rule requiring that bills be read in full before a final vote. That is sort of this anachronism of another time. Until recently, it was routinely skipped. But as Republicans have lost control of the process, they’ve been slowing down bills by insisting that every word be read on the chamber floor. That can add a lot of time, just depending on the bill. Last year, there was a bill that did something minor. It was, I think, changing the name of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission. That ended up requiring days of lawmakers just sitting there while the bill was read just because making that change throughout Oregon law required a very long bill. So this has gotten pretty extreme. Democrats have even begun using computers to read bills at times because it’s become pretty routine, too.
Miller: But that tactic is really just about a delay. The so-called ‘nuclear option’ in Oregon is a walkout, which is tied to a quorum requirement. What is that requirement?
VanderHart: Yes, Oregon has one of the stricter quorum requirements in the country. Under the constitution, two-thirds of lawmakers in either chamber have to be present in order for that chamber to conduct business, like vote on bills. That’s a larger majority than the Democrats have, so Republicans can walk away and stop the progress of bills if they think it’s sufficiently worth it to do that.
Miller: When have they used that? When have they found it sufficient? In other words, how have Republicans used walkouts in recent years?
VanderHart: I think the reason we are talking about this – this has long been something that’s available – is that it’s become prevalent I would say. This began in 2019, the same year actually that that Republican leader complained about being a speed bump. Republicans in the Senate walked away twice that session because of a number of bills they objected to. Ultimately they returned to Salem, having achieved some victories, and passed a huge number of bills at the end of session in a sort of rush. The next year though, in 2020, both the Senate and House Republicans walked away from the session. Since it was a one month short session, not a lot of time to get things done, they really did sort of just shut it down. Just three bills passed the entire session. Those are really why we are where we’re at with this ballot measure.
Miller: What options, those different years, did Democrats actually have to bring Republicans back?
VanderHart: Not a lot of good ones and maybe none, depending on how you look at it. In 2019 when the GOP left, Governor Kate Brown called out state troopers, called in the state police, to at least nominally try to round them up. That didn’t work since a lot of lawmakers had crossed state lines to get out of the grasp of state police. It led to a pretty tense situation actually, where one Republican senator, Brian Boquist, threatened violence against state police if they tried to apprehend him. When Republicans fled in 2020, the next year, Brown didn’t call in the state police. But Tina Kotek, who was at the time the Democratic House speaker, did attempt to subpoena House Republicans to appear at a hearing. That was unsuccessful. It’s just not clear that what tools maybe exist actually exist at all at this point.
Miller: What Democratic legislation were Republicans able to scuttle with these efforts?
VanderHart: The big one, and the reason we saw two years of walkouts really, was this proposal that would have capped and reduced greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon. That was a hugely contentious bill. Republicans hated it. Many of their supporters in industry and natural resources and business hated it. And that ultimately did not pass because of the 2020 walkout. In 2019 the Republicans were also able to win concessions on bills like gun control and mandatory vaccines in schools in order to get Republicans back to the building. So they won in that regard, in sort of horse trading their presence for Democrats to drop some priorities.
Miller: So that is the recent historical background: numerous Republican walkouts in 2019 and 2020 that had really big effects on major priorities for Democrats. What exactly does this measure that will be in front of voters in, what, four months or so? What would it do?
VanderHart: Exactly four months from today, actually. This would change…
Miller: [laughing] COVID brain was not going to help with that math. That was a guess.
VanderHart: The measure would change the state’s constitution to bar any lawmaker from running for re-election if they have 10 or more unexcused absences from a floor session during a single legislative session. Essentially, it would classify that number of unexcused absences as quote-unquote ‘disorderly behavior,’ which is punishable under the state constitution.
Miller: Who would decide what an unexcused absence is?
VanderHart: Yeah, I think that’s a notable piece of this. Absences are determined excused or unexcused by the presiding officers so the House speaker and the Senate president. Since Democrats are in charge, those offices are held by Democrats. They would be the ones deciding. We should note though that this is pretty routine. Lawmakers often have reasons they need to be away from a floor session. They file an excuse form ahead of time with the presiding officer, and the vast majority of times those absences are marked excused. Obviously, that doesn’t apply in the case of walkouts.
Miller: But it would be a kind of absolute power. It would be up to the speaker or the president of the House and the Senate themselves to decide, ‘Yes, you said it’s a doctor’s appointment, but I don’t believe you’? I’m just, I’m wondering how that would work because the repercussions are so serious. You can’t run in the next term.
VanderHart: Right. You could take it to a lot of conspiratorial places. And we may well see these arguments unfold in coming months where, oh, there’s some sort of political vendetta and then the House speaker is suddenly taking out a rival because they won’t mark them excused. Now, that would be very extreme. It would get a lot of press. It is something we may see floated as an argument against this thing. I don’t know.
Miller: Who pushed for this ballot measure?
VanderHart: This was conceived and paid for primarily by the big public sector unions in the state – so AFSCME, the SEIU, the Oregon Education Association. And it wasn’t cheap. COVID has made collecting signatures really hard because there’s just not a lot of people around and they don’t really want to talk to strangers. So the unions wound up spending more than $1.5 million just to land this measure on the ballot. They had some help, and they’ve got backing from some Democrats. I think Senate majority leader Rob Wagner is among the influential Dems that have signaled support and have helped fund that effort.
Miller: I’m curious about a tactical question here. Why go after the number of days of unexcused absences as a way to sort of punish people going forward, as opposed to [going after] the letter of the current constitution as it’s written and changing, say, the quorum requirement – which would seem to be a really direct way to do it – making it, say, the same size of the majorities that the Democrats already have, or even saying you only need 50% plus one to do business?
VanderHart: That was exactly my question. Because you’re right: now as this is constructed, this seems to allow a nine-day walkout, if it comes to that, and then things would need to come back in order if people didn’t want to lose their jobs. What we heard from the folks backing this is that they feel like this is a way to sell this measure in a way that is broadly supported by voters. In essence, they will be making the argument that, ‘Just like you, voters, if lawmakers don’t show up for work, they should lose their jobs.’ So they have this nine-day grace period, but if they are not in the seats, they should lose their job. That will be the salient argument that is made. I think, at least what I’ve heard, is they thought that was an easier argument to make than sort of a wonky, we’re going to change the quorum rules thing, here’s what a quorum is, etcetera.
Miller: There is an intriguing wrinkle here, or set of wrinkles, because of the overlap between this question and the governor’s race. Can you remind us the role that Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee for governor, played in walkouts in recent years?
VanderHart: Yes. The House Republicans only walked out once – that was in 2020. At the time Drazan was the leader of the House Republican caucus. Her caucus, many of them at least, fled to Reno that year in order to block climate change legislation. It was notable because it was her first year as leader. Past House Republican leaders had declined to lead walkouts, and Drazan’s caucus went in another direction. I think some people attributed her ascension to leadership partly to her being willing to take such an extreme move. … Hello?
Miller: Dirk, I can hear you. You went out for a second, but now you’re back. You’re saying that that was one of the theories as to why she was actually able to become the House Republican leader, because of her willingness to walk out in ways that previous Republican House leaders had not?
VanderHart: Yes, that’s right. Sorry, I cut out.
Miller: So that’s on the Republican side. On the Democratic side, obviously, we have Tina Kotek, who was the Speaker of the House at the time. Have the two said anything about this measure?
VanderHart: They haven’t about the measure. They’ve been very clear how they feel in the past. Kotek and other Democrats are adamant that walking away amounts to a dereliction of duty. She says the practice needs to stop. Though I would note that last year, when Texas Democrats walked away to block a Republican bill in their Legislature, many Democrats in Oregon were supportive of that. So it’s not an absolute. Drazan and other Republicans say that walkouts are a necessary tool. They feel like it was built into the constitution to ensure that the minority has a voice and that the party in power can’t simply do whatever it wants.
Miller: Republicans have been quick to point out that they don’t have a monopoly on walkouts in Oregon. The Democrats used the tactic in the early 2000s. But, given the numbers now and the much more recent history, is it fair to assume that the debate over this measure as we head into the fall, that it’s going to fall very neatly along partisan lines?
VanderHart: I’m really interested in that. The unions would say their polling shows broad, broad support – 84% support or something for this. But it has just become such a politicized, partisan thing in recent years that I think it very well might come down to a more partisan split than they’re anticipating. I don’t actually know. We’re just gonna have to see how it shakes out. We’ll also have to see what the opposition campaign to this looks like.
Miller: This measure is going to be on Oregon ballots. That was what we learned this week. It seems like another one might make it as well. Something that seemed unlikely not too long ago, this would tighten some of Oregon’s gun laws. What exactly would it do?
VanderHart: It would do a couple of big things. First, it would require that Oregonians obtain a permit before they’re able to buy a gun at a store or at a gun show and also before they receive one, for instance, as a gift. And, as part of getting that permit, applicants would be required to take a gun safety class and pass a background check. So that’s a new step. It would also outlaw magazines that could hold more than 10 rounds, so-called high-capacity magazines.
Miller: Now, in order for this to qualify, initiative petition backers had to send in more than 100,000 signatures. By the end of May, they had only submitted about 2,500. And then a month later they had more than 120,000. What happened?
VanderHart: I think Uvalde pretty much, and Buffalo, and now I guess Highland Park. There have just been these horrific mass shootings in recent months that have really refocused the nation on this issue. The folks behind this measure say, as a result, they received an enormous amount of interest from both people who wanted to sign the petition but also people who wanted to gather signatures for the petition. I think the question here will be whether they can clear the signature hurdle, which is a little more than 112,000 signatures. They say they have more than that right now, but state elections officials are going to have to analyze those signatures to ensure they’re valid, and that will be the deciding factor.
Miller: Dirk, thanks very much.
VanderHart: Yeah, my pleasure.
Miller: That’s Dirk VanderHart, who is a member of the reporting team that covers politics for OPB.
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