Senate Standoff Reaches Seventh Day With No Deal — And A Complaint

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
June 27, 2019 12:44 a.m.

More than a day after leading Democrats gave up hope of passing a divisive climate-change bill this session, Senate Republicans still refused to return to the Capitol on Wednesday.

In the most relaxed day in the statehouse since GOP senators walked off the job last week, no news of an agreement to get the legislative session back on track emerged. Lawmakers and staff openly speculated on whether the 11 Republicans would return in time to complete business before the session's mandatory June 30 adjournment, and what might convince them to do so.


Republicans initially walked out to prevent a vote on House Bill 2020, which aims to fight climate change by capping carbon emissions in Oregon and charging polluters. Senate President Peter Courtney announced Tuesday that the bill didn't have the votes to pass — essentially declaring it dead.

On Wednesday, with Republicans still absent, a coalition of progressive groups filed complaints against the missing senators with both the Government Ethics Commission and the Secretary of State.

Related: Oregon Senate Republicans Walking Out (Again)

The complaints, filed on behalf of a state employee named Andrea Kennedy-Smith, aim to ensure the lawmakers are not allowed to accept the $43,000-and-counting raised via a GoFundMe campaign to help them defray $500 daily fines and other costs associated with the walkout. Many of the Republican senators have left the state to avoid being forced to return to work by the Oregon State Police.

“As with bullies, it is important that the Republican senators bear the natural consequences of their actions,” the complaint said. “Under Oregon law, they must personally pay all expenses and fines caused by their unlawful, unethical and anti-democratic conduct.”

The Senate logjam seeped into the House, which has largely run out of bills to take up. The slowdown was so stark that the House has no plan to meet Thursday, just three days before session is scheduled to adjourn.

Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, told OPB on Wednesday afternoon that he remained in Idaho, but suggested an end to the standoff could be near.

“I think we’ve reached the serious part of this process,” Bentz said. “We’ll see events occurring over the next day or so, if they occur at all.”


Asked whether Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger had returned to Oregon to have discussions with Democrats, Bentz said: “You’d have to ask someone other than me that question.” He added that answering the question “wouldn't be productive to the conversation.”

GOP senators have openly questioned whether Courtney will be able to keep his word about HB 2020's apparent demise. The bill is currently scheduled for a vote in the Senate, and would need a majority vote to be sent back to committee or suspended for the session.

“I believe that President Courtney was perfectly truthful in his statement,” Bentz said. “It’s a question of how to structure things so that when we get back — if we get back — things click. The good news is there are paths to get where we want to go.”

With their absence Wednesday, Republican senators now face $2,500 in fines each, penalties they have suggested they will challenge.

A group calling itself the Get Back To Work Coalition filed the complaints trying to block senators from using the GoFundMe money. The coalition includes progressive organizations such as Basic Rights Oregon, Planned Parenthood, Renew Oregon and public employee unions.

As of Wednesday, the crowdsourcing campaign had raised $43,247 from 819 donors, many anonymous. Most donations are relatively small, but some are for hundreds of dollars or more.

The complaint argues that money cannot be used by Republicans, because doing so would either violate ethics laws regulating what kinds of gifts lawmakers can accept or campaign finance laws that would not allow lawmakers to use contributions to pay for walkout costs.

The coalition also argues a new "Stand With Our Senators" political action committee cannot spend money to help the Republicans pay for the boycott. Under Oregon law, political contributions can be spent on fines for election law violations or to help pay for lawmakers' official duties. The complaint says the tab for boycotting the Senate is neither.

“The $500 per day fine for being absent from the floor is being imposed by the Senate President based on the Republican senators’ willful violation of Senate rules to prevent the business of the state being completed,” the complaint argues. “It is not based on a violation of state election laws.”

To date, the Stand With Our Senators committee has only reported $50 in contributions, but former Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler announced on Twitter that he donated $5,000 to the cause.

Though the complaint is ostensibly against the 11 senator and suggests they might be “flagrantly ignoring” state laws, it does not allege that they’ve breached those laws. Rather, it asks officials to investigate Republicans’ activities “and find that money raised through the GoFundMe site or political contributions cannot be used to defray the fines or expenses related to the senators’ unlawful conduct.”

The Oregon Senate is scheduled to meet again Thursday at 9:30 am.