The walkout as a political tactic resurfaced Thursday in the Oregon Legislature.
This time, however, the 11 Republicans in the Senate said Feb. 25 that they were absent not to stall a vote on legislation by the 18 Democrats — although their walkout will delay at least five bills from coming to a final vote — but to send a message to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown about her policies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, the Senate could not conduct business because the Oregon Constitution requires a two-thirds majority (20) to be present in the Senate chamber. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was forced to adjourn the Senate until March 3.
The 11 Republicans were joined by Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas, who left the party and has become an independent. Boquist has been a critic of Brown's pandemic policies.
Minority Republicans in both chambers walked out of sessions in 2019 and 2020. The first forestalled a vote on the corporate activity tax in 2019; the tax was allowed to come to a vote after Democrats shelved several other legislative priorities. The other walkouts in 2019 and 2020 blocked action on climate-change legislation; Brown then issued an executive order that covered some points in the legislation.
The 2020 walkout prompted Democratic legislative leaders to shut down that session a few days ahead of the constitutional deadline of 35 days. The shutdown left budget changes and legislation to die on the table.
The Senate GOP letter Senate GOP letter made two demands of Brown, who just renewed an executive order for another 60 days, giving her emergency authority during the coronavirus pandemic. That period now extends to May 2.
One was for Brown, as state superintendent of public instruction, to order the reopening of public schools, although Oregon has 197 separate districts with their own governing boards.
"We request that you immediately reopen schools for full in-person instruction with proper public health," the letter says.
The other was for Brown to end pandemic-related lockdowns and let businesses reopen. Declining COVID-19 infection rates and new cases have allowed the state to ease restrictions in many counties.
"We ask that you immediately speed up economic reopening to give Oregonians a fighting chance of recovery," the letter says.
"Our previous efforts to bring these issues to your attention have gone unacknowledged. Thus, we are protesting today's floor session. In this show of solidarity with Oregonians who are being failed by the current direction of your policies, we hope this action conveys the importance of these issues."
They also urged Brown to give priority to seniors in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. Brown drew criticism both from seniors and teachers when she urged teachers and other school workers to get priority to enable their to reopen schools.
The walkout caught Courtney by surprise. Courtney said he received no notice in advance — the Senate GOP letter was not addressed to him — and he was forced to close the session. He said he could have issued a call of the Senate, under which members' presence can be compelled.
"Frankly, I'm not interested in doing that," he said. "They need to be here and do what they need to do to show their opposition on the floor and allow us to move forward."
Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and state Democratic Party chairwoman Carla "K.C." Hanson had harsher words for Republicans.
"Senate Republicans continue to sabotage Oregon's democracy and undermine the will of voters," Wagner said in a statement. "They have abdicated the oaths of office many of them took just weeks ago. They continue to accept pay, benefits and daily expenses from Oregon taxpayers all while completely obstructing the business before the Legislature — the people's work."
"This refrain is all too familiar for Oregonians. But it has unfortunately become the sad reality for an Oregon GOP that now sees obstruction and sabotage as their preferred tactics, rather than working with their Democratic colleagues to solve the problems we all face as Oregonians.
"There is no shortage of critical and important work before the Oregon Legislature this session. Oregon Democrats have and will continue to show up and do the work to address the crises our state faces. But as we've seen time and time again over the last three years, Oregon Republicans would rather skip town and subvert our democracy than do the jobs they were elected to do.
"Enough. Oregonians are tired of this. These Republicans must be held responsible for their actions, and we will work tirelessly to hold them accountable at the ballot box."
NOTE: Adds statements by Senate majority leader and Democratic Party chairwoman. Corrects that there are 11 Senate Republicans; Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas left the party and is an independent, though he also is a critic of Gov. Brown's pandemic policies.
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