Oregon voters tried to put an end to legislative walkouts. So, what happened?
The Republican boycott of the state Senate showed no signs of dissipating on Tuesday, as yet another state lawmaker hit 10-unexcused absences. Last November, voters passed a measure to try to put an end to legislative walkouts. But clearly it hasn’t worked.
Here’s the rundown on the latest GOP-led walkout in Salem:
They did! In November, Oregon voters approved Measure 113, amending the state constitution so a lawmaker with 10 or more unexcused absences in a legislative session would be ineligible to run for a legislative seat in the next election.
Republicans have increasingly relied on walking out to block the majority party from passing bills they don’t like. They can do that because the Oregon Constitution requires two-thirds of lawmakers to be present — not a simple majority like most states — for either chamber to conduct business. But it’s not just a Republican tool. Democrats have used walkouts to stop legislative action before, most recently in 2001 to block new Republican-drawn political maps.
Four state senators — Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Beatty, Sen. Brian Boquist, I-Dallas, Cedric Hayden, R- Fall Creek — have now accrued 10 unexcused absences. And later this week, six more senators could hit that threshold.
Under Measure 113, these lawmakers would be “disqualified” from holding office in either the House or Senate for one term once their current term is up. But lawmakers have signaled they are going to fight the measure. The GOP started a new political action committee, Oregon’s 13 Constitutional Defense Fund, to fundraise off the walkout. Lawmakers hope to use the funds to launch a legal challenge.
In Oregon, quorum rules are set forth in the state constitution, meaning they can only be changed by voters.
When public-employee unions introduced Measure 113 last year, many observers pointed out that it could lead to headaches. They questioned why sponsors didn’t ask voters for a more straightforward fix like changing the quorum threshold to a majority of lawmakers in each chamber.
Unions have said that such a change did not poll as well with voters as their sales pitch for Measure 113: If lawmakers don’t show up for work, they should be fired. But while voters approved the measure overwhelmingly, it clearly has not had the intended effect.
One of the lawmakers who has hit the threshold is an independent. What’s his story?
Sen. Brian Boquist made national headlines during one of the legislative walkouts in 2019. Then-Gov. Kate Brown sent Oregon State troopers looking for Republicans with the intent of hauling them back to the state Capitol. Boquist, who was then a registered Republican, strongly suggested he would shoot any state trooper who tried to take him back to the Capitol.
“This is what I told the [Oregon State Police] superintendent,” Boquist said at the time. “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.”
In 2021, Boquist switched parties and registered with the Independent Party of Oregon. He has stood in lock-step with the GOP in the current walkout.
Why are Republicans, plus Boquist walking out?
The GOP is demanding Democrats follow a law requiring bill summaries be written at an eighth-grade reading level. This 1979 rule has not been followed for decades. But Republicans have said it’s on the books and that Democrats are breaking the law by allowing bills to include overly complex summaries.
The underlying reason, however, is Republicans would like to get rid of bills they consider extreme — including those that expand access to abortions and gender-affirming care. They have been particularly adamant about a portion of House Bill 2002 that would allow children of any age to receive an abortion without parental notification. Currently minors must be at least 15 to have an abortion without a parent.
Democrats have been equally adamant that they will not weaken or alter House Bill 2002.
That’s not clear, according to Senate President Rob Wagner’s staff. Senate rules say that Wagner has the power to excuse absences, but don’t stipulate how long after an absence Wagner can choose to change his mind. In light of the walkout, he has changed some previously excused absences to unexcused. If Wagner were to excuse absences as part of a negotiating tactic, however, it would render Measure 113 largely ineffective.
Here is the pertinent section of the Oregon Constitution, Article IV, Section 15: “Failure to attend, without permission or excuse, ten or more legislative floor sessions called to transact business during a regular or special legislative session shall be deemed disorderly behavior and shall disqualify the member from holding office as a Senator or Representative for the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.”
The Legislature must pass a new two-year budget this year — ideally by July 1, when that budget would kick in. But lawmakers do have some wiggle room. Among the bills that have successfully cleared both chambers this year is House Bill 5046, which would fund state agencies at current levels until Sept. 15 if the Legislature can’t agree on a new budget. The Senate approved that bill on May 1, just two days before Republicans began their boycott.
As for other bills, that’s anyone’s guess. While the Legislature has passed major packages on housing and economic development this year, many bills that passed the House are still awaiting action in the Senate. They include proposals for funding behavioral health care, more money for education, allowing Oregonians to pump their own gas, pitching in for a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River, granting generous tax credits to semiconductor companies and much more. If the session has to be called off because of the walkout, they would have to wait for a future session.
Maybe. The nature of the state’s uncompetitive legislative maps means that most districts are either solidly Democratic or solidly Republican. All four of the lawmakers who have currently hit 10 unexcused absences are in districts that are considered safe for the GOP.
But that doesn’t mean that this couldn’t shakeup the Senate math if more lawmakers decide to take 10 absences.
Longtime state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, currently represents a district that leans Democratic. A GOP candidate without her name recognition could find it far harder to win there.
Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, is in a very light pink district that Democrats could make a play for if Weber can’t run again.
And Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, represents a district that after the 2021 redistricting tilts heavily in Democrats’ favor. It’s not clear Republicans will be able to hold onto the seat regardless of the walkout.