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As GOP walkout continues, what is getting done in Salem?

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938 and is topped with a gilded bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938 and is topped with a gilded bronze statue of the Oregon Pioneer.

The Oregon legislative session has been at an impasse for weeks since most Republican Senators and one independent walked out. Without the necessary quorum to conduct business, there’s not much getting done in Salem right now.

KLCC’s Rachael McDonald spoke with KLCC’s political reporter Dirk VanderHart to get an update.

Can you remind us of why Senate Republicans are refusing to attend floor sessions? 

There are actually a number of reasons that have been presented since lawmakers walked out on May 3. And in fact different Republicans you talk to offer different reasons for why they are remaining absent.

But I think generally there are two big reasons. The first is that Republicans say Democrats are using their majorities to pass extreme bills this year. Most pressingly, they point to House Bill 2002, a bill that would expand protections for abortion and transgender care. Republicans have been really opposed to a provision that would ensure children of any age don't need parental permission to get an abortion.

The other big thing Republicans argue is that Democrats aren’t following proper process. a decades old law that says the summaries that are attached to bills need to be written at an eighth grade reading level. That’s a law that hasn’t been followed in decades. But the GOP is insisting Democrats follow it now.

Without the ability to pass bills, what are lawmakers doing?

Well, the Senate chamber isn't really doing anything. They convene everyday without 20 members present, which means they can't conduct business. But actually there is a lot happening in the Capitol. Committees are still working on bills – and what’s notable about that is that Republicans are often attending those hearings. They have been present in the Capitol even though they don't go to the chamber floor. And that’s possible because Democrats aren't sending police to round them up as has happened before.

And on the other side of the building, the House is pretty much operating as if nothing is happening. They are very busy passing bills every day.

The protesting GOP lawmakers say they won’t return to the capitol until the final day of the session. What would that look like? What can be accomplished in one day?

The Republican version of this basically amounts to total victory. They’re saying they would return on June 25, the day the legislature is set to adjourn, and grant Democrats permission to fast track bills to passage in a single day. Theoretically, that approach could actually lead to a lot of bills passing pretty quickly. But it’s not going to happen. Democrats say there is no way they will let Republicans come back and dictate which bills live and which bills die. They say that’s tantamount to the minority party having veto power, which goes against the will of the voters.

What are some of the big bills that may not get any traction because of the GOP walkout?

First and foremost is the budget. The most vital thing lawmakers are in Salem to do this year is pass a new two year budget. And if they don't do that by Sept. 15, the state government will run out of funding.

But there are dozens and dozens and dozens of other bills still in play. Lawmakers have been trying to figure out how to fix a crisis in the state’s public defense system, they’ve been talking about funding a massive new bridge over the Columbia River, there are bills to bolster mental health and addiction care – even a bill that would let Oregonians pump their own gas. So, many things are on hold right now.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure last year that was meant to put an end to these kinds of walkouts by both Republicans and Democrats in Salem, but it doesn’t seem to have been effective. Are these protesting lawmakers content with the fact that they won’t be able to run for re-election under this law?

Well, saying it's not been effective is sort of an understatement. This ballot measure, Measure 113, said that if lawmakers get 10 or more unexcused absences, they can't run for reelection. That’s a pretty major penalty, but Republicans were clearly not dissuaded by that. Ten lawmakers – a full third of the senate – now have more than 10 absences, but they are not willing to concede that their political careers are over. Republicans are planning to challenge Measure 113 in court.

Dirk Vanderhart is KLCC’s political reporter in Salem. He spoke with KLCC’s Rachael McDonald.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.
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