Ballot measures seek to stop GOP walkouts in Legislature
A coalition is pressing ahead with up to 10 ballot measures aimed at stopping walkouts and other delaying tactics in the Oregon Legislature.
The measures include barring lawmakers from seeking reelection if they pile up too many unexcused absences, and from getting paid.
The No More Costly Walkouts Coalition consists largely of groups opposed to the actions by Republican minorities in the Senate and House during the past three years. Among them: Service Employees International Union, whose Local 503 represents the largest group of state employees; Oregon Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, the union-backed Our Oregon, Oregon League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood Action PAC of Oregon.
Others are Fair Shot Oregon, Forward Together Action, Next Up Action Fund and Oregon Wild.
The measures are aimed at what the coalition considers Republican obstruction of the legislative process. Democrats have been the majority party in both chambers since 2007 — with the exception of a 30-30 House in 2011 and 2012 — and have held 60% supermajorities since 2019.
But Republican walkouts and refusal to waive the reading of bills in 2019, 2020 and 2021 have affected the process.
Sponsors did submit preliminary petitions Thursday, May 6, for two proposed ballot measures for the 2022 general election. If the state Elections Division verifies 1,000 voter signatures for each, the next steps for sponsors are to obtain ballot titles — official summaries — and start collecting voter signatures to qualify them for a statewide vote.
Andrea Kennedy-Smith, a welfare worker from McMinnville, is a chief petitioner for those measures.
"If I didn't show up to work or if I made it impossible for other people to do their jobs, I would lose my job," she said. "Republican senators even staged a walkout this year — in the middle of the pandemic — as families were struggling with job loss, extra caregiving duties, and the fear of illness just from going to the grocery store. This is why we have to come together and take a stand with these measures."
One measure would change the Oregon Constitution to bar legislators from seeking reelection if they register more than 10 unexcused absences during a session. This measure would require 149,360 signatures by July 2022, equal to 8% of the votes cast for governor in 2018.
The other measure would change state law to levy a fine of $500 each day a legislator has an unexcused absence, plus withhold salary, per diem allowance and reimbursement for expenses. It also would bar legislators from tapping campaign funds or raising money to offset any losses. This measure would require 112,020 signatures by July 2022, equal to 6% of the votes cast for governor in 2018.
Lawmakers make $32,832 in annual salary, and get a daily allowance (currently $151) for expenses each day of a session, plus days of interim committee meetings. The amount is set at the level before the Internal Revenue Services requires itemization of expenses. A monthly allowance for expenses is paid when there is no session; the amount hinges on the size of the member's district.
The signatures on the preliminary petitions, once verified, would count toward the required totals.
Senate Republicans walked out twice in 2019, once over a new corporate activity tax — which finally passed after Democrats shelved other legislative priorities — and once over climate-change legislation that lacked Democratic votes to pass. The next year, Republicans in both chambers walked out to thwart climate-change legislation, and Democrats abruptly adjourned the 2020 session a few days before the constitutional deadline.
This year, Senate Republicans walked out for one day — ostensibly to protest Gov. Kate Brown's lockdown orders during the pandemic — and Republicans in both chambers have objected to waiving the constitutional requirement for bills to be read before a final vote. (House Republicans finally agreed to a session waiver April 14 after Democrats agreed to give them a greater voice in legislative and congressional redistricting, but Senate Republicans have waived the rule only sporadically.)
House Republicans have not walked out during the current session. But unlike the Senate, current House rules — passed over GOP objections at the start of the session Jan. 11 — empower Speaker Tina Kotek to levy a $500 fine for an unexcused absence.
Reed Scott-Schwalbach, a high school teacher from Portland and vice president of the Oregon Education Association, also is a chief sponsor of the two ballot measures submitted May 6.
"Oregon deserves better than lawmakers who walk off the job or keep others from working," he said. "There is too much at stake for our students and their families to be playing political games in Salem. When lawmakers take an oath of office they promise to show up for Oregonians each and every day. If they can't do that on their own, we will change the rules so they have to."
Democrats, too, have used walkouts in the past — but not in recent years.
In 1971, Democrats walked out in the Senate to stop an attempted roadblock to legislation granting 18-year-olds the right to vote in state elections. The Senate then was controlled by a coalition of 14 Republicans and two Democrats — they sought to avert a public vote — but eventually, the legislation passed. (The U.S. Constitution was amended to lower the voting age not long afterward.)
In 2001, Democrats walked out in the House to forestall an attempt by the majority Republicans to pass a redistricting plan by resolution, not subject to the veto of then-Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. They stayed away long enough so that Republicans ran out of time. The Senate, then split between 16 Republicans and 14 Democrats, also signaled it was unwilling to go along.
Republicans in both chambers eventually passed redistricting plans in legislation that Kitzhaber vetoed. The Supreme Court ruled later in 2001 that the Legislature could not bypass the governor in a redistricting plan.
The eight new measures unveiled by the coalition Thursday combine the earlier components with other elements:
• An automatic extension of session lengths if walkouts occur. Under the annual-sessions measure that voters approved in 2010, the Oregon Constitution limits sessions in odd-numbered years to 160 days and in even-numbered years to 35 days, unless two-thirds majorities agree to extend them in five-day increments.
• If there are walkouts, the number of legislators required to conduct business (called a quorum) would drop from two-thirds to a simple majority in each chamber. For the Senate, it would be 16 of 30, instead of 20; for the House, 31 of 60, instead of 40.
• The constitutional requirement for all bills to be read before a final vote — usually waived — would be dropped if the text is posted 24 hours ahead of the vote. If it is not, a reading could be waived by a simple majority, not the current two-thirds required.
The coalition filed the measures with the state Elections Division to start the process of gathering 1,000 signatures on preliminary
The coalition is likely to drop most of the measures and pursue those it feels has the greatest chance of success with voters.
Oregon is among a few states where the quorum requirement exceeds a simple majority of the members. The U.S. Constitution sets a simple majority for the Senate and House to do business.
"Oregon is one of only four states in the country where walkouts are possible as we've seen over the past three sessions are a threat because of our unusual supermajority requirement," Kenya Juarez, interim executive director of Next Up Action Fund, said. "We have to get our state back on track and take action to ensure that lawmakers who take an oath of office actually show up to work and do their jobs."
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