Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek suggested Thursday she’ll consider punitive measures — including financial penalties and potentially sending out state police — against 21 absent Republican state representatives.
As a GOP walkout halts action in the Capitol for a fourth straight day of the legislative session, Kotek offered her first public statements on potential consequences for boycotting Republicans. While the speaker made clear she is still conducting research, she suggested that a variety of options remain on the table.
“In the past, the state police have been dispatched to pursue absent members wherever they may be,” Kotek told Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, in what appeared to be a choreographed dialogue. “My preference at this point is not to authorize that because I believe our state troopers should be focused on their core public safety functions.”
On further questioning by Holvey, Kotek made clear that Democrats did not have the ability to stop absent Republicans from receiving the $151 daily “per diem” payments during the legislative session, and that the majority party could not expel anyone from the House. But Kotek and other Democrats suggested they might attempt to reduce money that goes to pay for absent legislators’ staff and supplies.
“It might be a possibility to reduce the services and supply budgets,” Kotek said. “I can explore that.”
The comments come as Republicans in the House and Senate remain out of Salem — and by their own telling, across state lines — in order to block Democrats’ signature climate change legislation, Senate Bill 1530. Without two Republican members present in each chamber, Democrats can’t achieve the two-thirds quorum required to conduct business.
Two Republicans have remained in the Capitol: Sen. Tim Knopp and Rep Cheri Helt. Both represent swing districts in Bend that lean Democratic.
As the walkout drags on, Democratic and Republican leaders say they’ve maintained regular communications. But with Democrats refusing a central GOP demand — that they put the climate bill’s fate in the hands of voters — there has not been an outward glimmer of compromise.
In her dialogue with Holvey on Thursday, Kotek said she’d sent text messages to missing Republicans asking them to return to the Capitol. She got few responses, she said, and those that reply referred her to House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby.
Routing all communications through Drazan has been a point of strategy for House Republicans in order to guard against the possibility one member might defect and grant Democrats a quorum.
“We’re very clear … we have a singular point of communication through Rep. Drazan for any negotiations,” said Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, who noted Wednesday that Republicans are watching the House remotely. “We aren’t amenable to the divide and conquer approach.”
At one point Thursday, Holvey seemed to suggest that the House could be guided by “parliamentary rules” in absence of better options to compel Republicans’ attendance. He did not specify what those might be and Democrats in the chamber could not offer clarity.
“I will definitely look at that,” Kotek said. “At this point I’m just trying to understand and examine what other options will be.”
In her comments Thursday, Kotek did not appear to rule out asking Oregon State Police to go after Republicans.
Senate President Peter Courtney activated the police during a Republican walkout in June 2019, but said this week he would not do so again, worrying that it would create a “big show.” Even so, Republicans say they’ve left the state.
“I encouraged my members to just leave the state so the state police can actually focus on crime,” Drazan said Wednesday.
Another potential option, sapping lawmakers’ budgets for staff and supplies, would be a new approach for Democrats looking to levy consequences in an age of increasingly common boycotts. While Senate Democrats last year attempted to fine Republicans $500 for each day they were away, that effort ultimately crumbled amid legal questions.
“Maybe we can freeze their staff accounts,” House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner said Thursday. “They are literally trying to break our system.”
The climate bill that inspired the current standoff would place a limit on Oregon greenhouse gas emissions and reduce it gradually until 2050. Large emitters would be required to obtain credits for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit. Since some of those credits would be obtained at auction, Republicans have characterized the bill as a jobs killer for their rural districts.
Senate Republicans fled the Capitol on Monday, after the bill cleared a budget committee and headed to the Senate floor. House Republicans followed suit the next day.
The 2020 legislative session must conclude March 8 at the latest. To date, just three bills have passed both chambers.