UPDATE (12:45 p.m. PT) — Oregon Senate Republicans temporarily stymied a $2 billion tax package for K-12 schools by not showing up for a planned vote.
Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, asked lawmakers to come back to the chamber later, with the hopes that Republicans would appear.
In an interview Tuesday morning, Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, said talks with Democratic leadership on Monday night and Tuesday morning had not been productive. Baertschiger said his members would not show up for a Senate floor session scheduled for 11 a.m., thereby denying Democrats a quorum and forcing business to a halt.
“This is the only tool we have to put pressure on what’s going to happen,” said Baertschiger, whose party has superminority status in both the Senate and House.
The tax package enshrined in House Bill 3427 won surprising last-minute buy-in from the business industry after Democratic leaders cut a deal with Oregon Business and Industry, the state’s largest business group. That deal meant the $1 billion-a-year proposal has a far smaller chance of being defeated at the ballot if it’s passed. But the agreement rankled Republicans, who said they were not included in any of the negotiating.
Baertschiger said Tuesday he knows the bill will pass — he just wants to slow it down. His goal is to get Democratic leaders to agree to pull the bill back to committee, though he wouldn’t detail any specific changes he’d demanded.
As he spoke, the senator had just finished a meeting on the proposal with members of the OBI board. He declined to detail those discussions.
“I think the bill needs work,” Baertschiger said. “My job is to get it to committee.”
Republican senators have been scarce in the Capitol since Monday, when only two of them — Baertschiger and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend — showed up to a floor session, thereby granting Democrats a quorum and the ability to pass bills.
Rumors swirled Monday that some senators might have crossed state lines, a move designed to prevent the Oregon State Police from collecting lawmakers and forcing them into session.
Baertschiger hinted at that move again Tuesday, saying he had “a meeting in Vancouver.” Asked if he was serious, he responded he would not tell OPB where he planned to go. He also downplayed the possibility that troopers would go after senators.
“They’ve got better things to do than chase some old legislators,” he said.
Republicans’ unwillingness to show up could create difficulties for an array of legislation, not just the tax package. Democrats are hoping to get moving soon on a bill that would create a cap-and-trade system in the state, and the Senate is expected to take up a bill in coming days to tighten vaccine rules.
Bills also face an end-of-week deadline to be scheduled for a work session in the chamber they didn’t originate in. A Senate shutdown could pose difficulties for high-profile policy bills that have yet to be moved to a second chamber, including a law to dramatically narrow the state’s death penalty.
Baerstchiger said Tuesday his caucus is still ready to play ball on those issues. It just wants more time on the schools tax.
“We, I think, showed that we are ready to work” by providing a quorum on Monday, he said. “Hopefully it’s resolved this week.”
It’s a dramatic move for Senate Republicans, but not unprecedented. In 2001, for example, House Democrats left Salem for five days during a fight over redistricting.
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, had the school funding bill printed and out and sitting on his lap Tuesday morning. He was a key architect of the $2 billion school funding package.
And he was part of the 2001 Democratic walkout.
“I’m not going to say anything negative,” Hass said, about the current Republican walkout. “We used the one tool we had (in 2001) and it worked. But we got beaten up pretty hard.”
Hass pushed back on the idea that the money from the bill could be used for anything besides schools.
In addition to wanting a plan to tackle the state’s pension system, Baertschiger said he’s worried that in the future, the money raised by the new tax plan could be spent on services besides education.
Although Democrats have promised the new revenue would be used for schools, it would take a constitutional amendment — and thus a vote by the people — to ensure the money goes into a dedicated fund for education.
Hass said the bill creates a “cast iron firewall” in statute requiring that the money from the bill would be spent on education.
“It will go to K-12, not PERS, not my office remodeling project,” Hass said.
Lauren Dake contributed to this story.
This story will be updated.