The 2020 Oregon legislative session is effectively over.
Lawmakers set out with a hefty policy agenda for the 35-day session: bills to prepare the state for an earthquake, changes to the way wildfires are fought, efforts to address the state’s housing crisis and an ambitious climate change policy.
None of that happened.
Instead, Republicans in both the House and Senate left the Capitol last week to protest a cap-and-trade bill. This week, on Thursday, after the two sides spent days trying to end an impasse, legislative leaders unexpectedly adjourned the session three days before the constitutional deadline.
The unprecedented move meant more than one hundred bills perished – among them, bills to create an independent public records advocate, strengthen the state’s gun laws, and declare a statewide homelessness emergency. Several of the bills were budget related, carving out money to address a mental health and foster care crisis.
From the start of this legislative session, it was clear Republicans could stage another walkout to kill the cap-and-trade bill.
Now that they have, what is less clear is how the Oregon State Legislature functions in the future.
“I guarantee you other states are gonna start copying this and that’s how dangerous this is,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.
Courtney, the state’s longest-serving Senate President, a man who has long worked to protect the Legislature as an institution, said the damage done this legislative session is heartbreaking.
At this point, Courtney said, helping the institution recover is now as “important of an issue” as any legislation. The Salem Democrat said the Republicans’ move to walkout effectively shifted the power into the hands of the governor now and in the future. Republicans should expect a significant power shift to the governor’s office who will now legislate through executive order, Courtney warned.
Courtney said he would consider calling a special session in the future to change the state’s quorum rules. Currently, two-thirds of lawmakers must be present in order to conduct business. This session, even though Democrats held super majorities in both chambers, they needed two Republicans to be present in both chambers in order to vote on bills.
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Even Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, the Senate Minority Leader who led the walkouts, said denying a quorum sets a dangerous precedent. At a press conference on Thursday, he was asked whether he would support a Democratic effort to change the quorum rules so only a simple majority was required to do business.
"I would have to give that some considerable thought because when you have a supermajority or when you have a party that is that powerful it almost turns into mob rule," he said. "And the only thing the minority has is to deny quorum, but I would have to give it some more thought because I do really, really, really worry people are going to use this every time they don't get their way… This is not a good way to run a state, I can tell you that very much right now."
On the House floor Thursday afternoon, Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland — known for being an even-handed and pragmatic politician — gave a passionate speech calling what happened a "corrosion of our democratic process."
“This is a challenge I did not expect to face in my time as speaker,” Kotek said. “I did not expect to face a constitutional crisis in which so many of our colleagues simply decide to stop showing up for work until they get their way.”
Republicans in the Senate and House launched a walkout last week in order to block Senate Bill 1530, Democrats’ signature climate change bill. The proposal would institute a cap-and-trade system in Oregon, creating a declining cap on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and forcing many polluters to pay for a portion of their emissions.
The Democrats’ decision to end the session came shortly after Oregon Republicans said Thursday they were willing to return to the Capitol this weekend after more than a week away.
Senate Minority Leader Baertschiger and House Minority Leader Christine Drazan said they were open to attending floor sessions on March 8 — the session’s constitutional deadline — to pass a series of budget bills.
But the statement by Republicans seemed to seal the legislative session’s fate. Kotek fired back on the House floor.
“Now, after missing eight days of work and creating an insurmountable backlog of good bills and good budgets, the Republican leaders say they want to come back with 12 hours left so they can pick and choose what bills live and die,” Kotek said. “This would mean that after days of shirking their duties, they simply get to return and decide they can unilaterally kill all bills of their choosing.”
Over in the Senate, Courtney took to the dais in his chamber shortly after Kotek. The fight over climate isn’t over, Courtney said.
“We are going to deal with, let’s just say, the carbon bill,” Courtney said. “We are, through the governor’s executive action. What is going to happen and it’s started, is that the governor’s office – whoever occupies it – is going to have to use more executive orders… That is how badly this institution has been hurt.”
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Democrats said they intend a special session to address budget issues within the next 30 days. The governor said she would be willing to call a special legislative session if lawmakers bring her a plan for a “functioning session.” That’s also a step members of the Legislature could take themselves, but it remained deeply uncertain Thursday what issues Democrats would prioritize in such a session, and whether they could convince Republicans to show up.
In the meantime, the governor said in a statement, she will be taking executive action to address greenhouse gas emissions.
On Monday, the Legislature’s emergency board is scheduled to convene to carve out money to address the coronavirus outbreak and offer millions in flood funding relief to eastern Oregon. The body has $75 million in reserves it can pull from to address pressing issues, far less than lawmakers had contemplated spending during the legislative session.
“This session is over,” Courtney said. “This session is over. This session is adjourned, sadly. Tragically.”
Dirk Vanderhart contributed to this report.