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As Republicans Return, Oregon Senate Moves At Blistering Pace

UPDATE (June 29, 9:07 p.m. PT) — Oregon Republican senators returned to the Capitol Saturday, ending a standoff that caused a political crisis in the state and kick-starting a marathon session as lawmakers try to beat the constitutional deadline for adjournment.

With little fanfare, nine of the Senate’s 12 Republicans filed into the Senate chamber shortly after 9 a.m., some of them exchanging pleasantries with Democrats. Included in their number was newly minted Sen. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, who was appointed to fill the seat of late Sen. Jackie Winters.

Three Republican senators, Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, and Fred Girod, R-Stayton, weren’t present when the chamber gaveled in.

Boquist —  whose comments seeming to threaten state troopers prior to the walkout have garnered international attention — stayed off the floor after concerns were raised about his presence.

As one of its first orders of business, the Senate seemed to dispatch House Bill 2020, the proposal that spurred Republicans to begin their walkouton June 20. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, rose to move that the bill be taken from its place on the calendar, and placed back in a legislative committee.

Asked to speak to the motion as a matter of procedure, Burdick replied: “I have nothing to say.”

The Senate moved the bill to the Senate Rules Committee, with 10 of the chamber’s 18 Democrats opposing the action.

The move seemingly ended a fight that has strained relationships in the statehouse since the first days of the session. HB 2020 would create an overall cap on Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions and would charge companies for their pollution.

But the bill saw backlash from industries that felt added costs would put them at a competitive disadvantage, and from citizens who chafed at an expected increase in gas and energy costs. Ultimately the pushback was apparently enough to convince three Democratic senators to oppose the bill, meaning it would likely not have enough votes to pass.

Foes of the bill — some of them sitting directly outside the Senate chamber, watching the proceedings on a closed-circuit television — immediately cheered the move.

“Today’s victory belongs to the thousands of Oregonians that spoke out against HB 2020 by raising concerns with their lawmakers, participating in public hearings and attending the rallies here at the Capitol,” Preston Mann, a spokesman for a manufacturing group opposed to the bill, said in a statement.

With HB 2020 sitting in committee, lawmakers set about passing bills at a blistering pace. Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, waived a rule that requires bills to be read in full before being voted on, and legislators for the most part did not discuss or debate bills at any length.

That included weighty bills that have generated significant disagreement this session. Senators approved bills to narrow the death penalty, to create a special election for the potential ballot referral of a new business tax, and to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants — all without discussion. 

Meanwhile, the House gave final approval to a bill setting a Jan. 21 election date on the $1.4 billion-a-year tax on businesses to pay for schools — if a petition effort to refer the bill to voters gains enough signatures.

Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, presenting his colleagues with a bill on liquor licenses, said only: “This is a really good bill. You should pass it. I urge an ‘aye’ vote.” Senators laughed and passed the bill.

The pace was so brisk that after two hours of work, lawmakers had passed more than 60 bills. That prompted Senate President Peter Courtney to recess the chamber for nearly six hours. 

"We've done 62 bills and we've got a whole bunch more we're waiting on," he said, instructing lawmakers to return at 6 p.m. "At which time we're gonna go hard and do more bills." 

Both chambers worked until shortly before 9 p.m. They adjourned until Sunday, the last day before the session is constitutionally required to end.

During downtime in the floor session, some newly returned Republicans described for the first time how they'd spent their time away.

Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, said the time away was stressful. He was in California and spent 14-hour days on the phone, he said.

Heard, who helped organize a rally in support of the absent Republican senators earlier this week, estimated he dropped 20 pounds from being so stressed.

Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, said he first crossed the border into Washington to escape the reach of state troopers. He was in Camas, Toppenish and Yakima. But he said he never felt safe.

Thomsen figured Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee would surely enjoy sending him back to Oregon. And he was determined to “not be the one who got caught.” He described wearing his hat low over his eyes and sunglasses when he left his hotel.

It wasn’t until Thomsen made it to Idaho — driving his son-in-law’s truck to throw off law enforcement — that he felt he could relax. And he said he was happy to find three other Republican senators in Idaho as well.

When people learned who he and his colleagues were, he said, “We were treated like rockstars."

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, estimates he did between 40 and 50 interviews while on the lam.

He woke up at the crack of dawn to speak to NPR reporters. He appeared on Fox News more than once. He was featured in HBO’s VICE News and spoke to myriad local television and radio stations.

In several of the interviews, Knopp was wearing the same dress shirt — he only packed one. He forgot to throw more socks into his suitcase as well. For nine days, he was in a remote cabin on a lake in Idaho near the Canadian border.

But it was Boquist who was the subject of most discussion in the Capitol — not for walking out, but for statements he made beforehand. The senator told KGW last week that Oregon State Police should “send bachelors and come heavily armed” if they attempted to bring him back to the Capitol.

The Salem Reporter reported Saturday that an attorney retained by the Legislature has recommended that Boquist not be allowed in the Capitol for the session's final days. A formal complaint against Boquist will be taken up by the Senate Special Committee On Conduct, said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, the committee chair. Prozanski would not describe the details of the complaint.

"I would assume that we will be looking at this matter … probably within the month," Prozanski said. Democrats and Baertschiger said later in the evening that the meeting would be held July 8. The committee could recommend that Boquist be censored or expelled, but any final decision would have to be made by the Senate.

Baertschiger said of Boquist's absence from the floor, "I think we're just going through a cooling off period." He said he thought that Boquist made the decision to stay away.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said she asked Courtney and Baertschiger to ask Boquist to stay off the floor "given the fear of so many staff and members," and the recommendation made by the attorney hired by the Legislature.

Despite the speed at which lawmakers moved, they skipped over many of the major issues they still plan to tackle before finishing up. Among them are bills raising tobacco taxes, creating a paid family leave program, asking voters to allow limits on campaign money and ending exclusive single-family zoning in much of the state.

Behind the cordiality of Saturdays’ proceedings, emotions among many senators were still raw.

“It’s been a very rough time,” said Burdick. “I’ll be honest.”

Jeff Mapes contributed to this report.

Sun glints off the pioneer atop the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019. Republican senators returned to the Capitol after a nine-day walkout in order to finish Senate business before the June 30 deadline.
Bradley W. Parks /
Sun glints off the pioneer atop the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019. Republican senators returned to the Capitol after a nine-day walkout in order to finish Senate business before the June 30 deadline.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake