Senate plays waiting game as lawmakers hide out
SALEM — There was still no sign Monday that Republican senators boycotting the Capitol are ready to return.
Republicans have avoided the Senate since Thursday, June 20, preventing a vote on legislation to cap the state's greenhouse gas emissions and blocking scores of pending bills. Several Republican senators have told the Oregon Capital Bureau and other media outlets that they left the state and plan to stay away until they get a deal.
Although Gov. Kate Brown has asked state troopers to find wayward Republicans, they can't reach beyond Oregon. State troopers are working with law enforcement agencies in other states.
Republicans say any deal would have to include concessions to their party, which holds enough seats to deny a working majority for the Senate to vote on legislation.
The dispute is over legislation that would invoke some of the most sweeping environmental legislation in state history — House Bill 2020. The legislation puts the state to work clamping down on carbon emissions, a move critics say would harm Oregonians and hurt key industries.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem and Sen. Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, of Grants Pass have been talking intermittently. Both are largely mum about those talks. Baertschiger said in a statement about noon Monday insisting that his 11-member group of senators is holding firm.
"Despite the onslaught of rumors, as of today, no deal with the Democrats has been made," said Baertschiger, who did not return a request for further comment. "I have been in communications without any results and nothing has been determined. My caucus and I intend to remain out of the state."
Courtney declined to comment through a spokeswoman, who said he is in "delicate" negotiations and is not discussing them with the media.
Emergency clause objection
Brown hasn't been a party to those talks. The governor's office is mapping out what Brown would do in various scenarios — whether Republicans and Democrats reach a deal, or don't, for example, and don't before lawmakers must adjourn. But the governor is focused on getting Republicans back to the Capitol before sine die, which must occur before 11:59 p.m. Sunday, June 30.
Republicans are critical of several elements of the bill to cap emissions through a market system. One key objection is to a so-called "emergency clause" that would cause the bill to become law immediately after the governor signs it. That clause also means citizens can't refer the bill to the ballot.
Opponents to the legislation, however, can still get voters to weigh in through initiative petitions. But that requires more signatures than a referral. Asking voters to repeal a law through an initiative is also typically a greater challenge than asking them to issue a so-called "citizen's veto" to prevent a law from ever taking effect in the first place.
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, negotiated last week with Democratic lawmakers and Brown's chief of staff, Nik Blosser. He said he asked them to remove the emergency clause but was told flatly that it wasn't an option.
At this point, Bentz said Monday, June 24, that he wouldn't be satisfied with just stripping the emergency clause from HB 2020, and at any rate, Democrats haven't offered. "You can't talk about these types of changes in a vacuum," Bentz said. "You have to look at the bigger picture."
He added, "The field of discussions is still extremely broad, and those discussions are ongoing."
Since the walkout began, Bentz said, Baertschiger has taken the lead negotiating with Democrats.
Asked if there's been any progress, he said that's "hard to measure," since any ideas or offers have to be taken back to the caucuses.
"There's no way to say what's going to happen at this point," Bentz said.
Meantime, Democrats in the Senate are playing the waiting game. They've been meeting multiple times per day in their caucus room, just footsteps from the Senate chamber, getting updates on negotiations and discussing their next move.
On Monday, the Senate opened and then closed every few hours or so, with Republican senators nowhere in sight.
"We're trying to, basically, make sure that we're all up to speed on information that's out there," said Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who leads Democrats in the Senate. "But there's not much we can do. There's not much of the people's work we can do without the Republicans providing a quorum."
As for Burdick, she spent much of the day talking with her colleagues and doing "lots of media interviews," she said. "If anybody can reach a deal, it's Senator Courtney. But it's very hard, once someone has just taken all the norms and thrown 'em out the window, it's very hard to know even how to negotiate with someone like that."
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, stayed in Salem over the weekend. "We're asked to be within an hour of the building pretty much all the time," he said.
Being around the Capitol gave Golden an opportunity to watch demonstrators protest HB 2020 outside the building. He strongly supports the bill and believes opponents' claims about how it will "destroy" rural Oregon are overblown, but he remembers the 1990s, when the U.S. Forest Service all but stopped logging in Southern Oregon, and what his community went through in those years.
"(They) seemed like good, hard-working people," Golden said of the protestors at the Capitol. "Some had harsher things to say than others. I got their deep concern about the future, and it reminded me some of what we went through with timber 30 years ago in the Rogue Valley. And I had an urge to get up and say, 'Really, it's going to be all right.' But I know it's more complicated than that, and I wasn't about to argue with them."
Many bills in peril
On the House side of the Capitol Monday, it was business as usual. Representatives met for most of the day, passing more than a dozen bills — some of them on broad bipartisan votes, some on narrow, mostly party-line votes — that now go to a Senate that is unable to act.
Among the highlights on the House side was a public hearing on a bill that would allow the Clackamas County city of Damascus to dis-incorporate, which saw former and current city officials argue, respectively, for and against the legislation.
That bill passed the Senate before Republicans left, meaning it still has a chance of becoming law this session. Many other bills, including proposals to increase the supply of affordable housing, create a statewide paid family and medical leave program, and allow undocumented residents to obtain driver's cards, will die at the end of the month unless the Senate can secure enough senators, and take them up and pass them before the Legislature adjourns.