NATIONAL NEWS

Oregon lawmakers rush to pass bills backlogged by GOP walkout before end of session

Jun 23, 2023, 1:03 PM

FILE - An attendee holds up a sign during a rally calling for an end to the Senate Republican walko...

FILE - An attendee holds up a sign during a rally calling for an end to the Senate Republican walkout at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore., on May 11, 2023. Oregon lawmakers have been rushing to approve hundreds of bills and a budget for the next two years before the legislative session ends on Sunday, June 25, 2023. The bills were stalled by the six-week Republican walkout that ended last week. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Amanda Loman, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers have been in a mad dash to approve hundreds of bills and billions of dollars in spending before the legislative session ends on Sunday, after a six-week Republican walkout caused stacks of legislation to pile up.

Legislators have been working into the evening over the course of the last week. On Wednesday and Thursday alone, the state House and Senate voted on more than 200 bills, passing an array of measures that included expanding wildfire protection efforts, banning TikTok on government cell phones and computers and bolstering mental health and addiction treatment.

Lawmakers have until midnight Sunday to clear the backlog of bills and pass a budget for the next two years.

“It is an extremely busy time here in Salem … and we are going to do our best to pass every bill that has been vetted through our incredible committee process,” Democratic Senate President Rob Wagner said in a newsletter.

The frantic pace caps off a session that seemingly started with notes of bipartisan goodwill before being thrown into turmoil by the longest walkout in the Oregon Legislature’s history. The Republican boycott was sparked largely by two bills on the hot-button issues of abortion and gender-affirming care, and guns, respectively. It ended last week following negotiations with Democrats, who agreed to modify parts of the bills.

In the bill relating to abortion access, Democrats agreed to change language concerning parental notifications and scrapped a section that would have required student health centers at public universities to provide emergency contraception and medication abortion.

They also agreed to drop several amendments on a bill that would punish the manufacturing or sale of undetectable firearms, also known as ghost guns. The now-removed clauses would have increased the purchasing age from 18 to 21 for semiautomatic rifles and placed more limits on concealed carry.

Both bills have now been passed and are headed to Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek’s desk.

Both sides claimed victory after the walkout ended. Republicans said their protest resulted in the bills being watered down. And Democrats said that even with the changes, the bills still represent progress on gun safety policy and will ensure abortion access while shielding providers from legal action originating in states where the procedure is now banned or restricted.

But the partisan tension tainted the session for many. The GOP walkout was punctuated by inter-party jostling, jabs and charged press releases. Senate Democrats also moved to fine senators $325 for each unexcused absence (although Wagner’s office said Thursday the senate president doesn’t intend to send any invoices to collect the fines).

The walkout also overshadowed the cross-aisle cooperation that did occur, some lawmakers say.

“I think 99% of the work we did in the House this year was very bipartisan and collaborative,” said Republican state Rep. Cyrus Javadi. “I just hope we can zoom in on what was broken in the process … and figure out what we can do in the future, regardless of who’s in power, to make this less likely to happen.”

Whether walkouts remain in the rearview mirror of the Oregon Legislature remains to be seen. Republicans also staged walkouts in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — describing them as the only way for the minority party to protest the majority Democrats’ agenda. This year’s boycott occurred despite the passage of a 2022 ballot measure that disqualifies lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from reelection. Ten senators — nine Republicans and one independent — decided to take the risk and racked up unexcused absences anyway, potentially barring them from reelection.

“I am disappointed that I potentially sacrificed my Senate seat for this walkout when it did not ultimately stop these unconstitutional and unlawful bills from moving forward, but accept where we are,” Republican state Sen. Daniel Bonham said in a letter to constituents.

GOP senators are likely to sue over the measure if they’re not allowed to register as candidates, starting in September, for the 2024 election.

Recognizing that the latest effort to stop walkouts may become embroiled in a court challenge, Democrats are looking to amend the state constitution’s quorum rule that has allowed walkouts to be so disruptive. Two-thirds of lawmakers must be present for the state House or Senate to conduct business and pass bills, making Oregon one of just five states where quorum is higher than a simple majority.

To that end, Democrats have proposed a joint resolution to change Oregon’s quorum to one of a simple majority. Democratic state Sen. Michael Dembrow is one of the chief sponsors.

“When it’s out there as a tool, there’s an expectation it’s going to be used, and it just creates many difficulties,” he said of walkouts. “To be honest, we approached the cliff and were able to retreat from it. … We came very close to a disaster.”

As the measure was introduced right before the end of the session, chief sponsors say they plan to reintroduce it next year. If passed, the resolution would be put on the ballot for voter approval.

“It would be ironic, of course, if there were a walkout to stop a referral to the voters,” he said. “But no one can rule that out.”

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Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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Oregon lawmakers rush to pass bills backlogged by GOP walkout before end of session