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Oregon Senate Leaders Sending $3,500 Invoices To Republicans For Walkout

<p>Republican Oregon state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, speaks in support of a resolution honoring those who fought and died in the Modoc War in the Oregon Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.</p>

Bryan M. Vance

Republican Oregon state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, speaks in support of a resolution honoring those who fought and died in the Modoc War in the Oregon Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, April 2, 2019.

Oregon's legislative session is over, but Senate Republicans are about to get their hands on a whole new crop of bills.

Senate leaders said this week they are preparing to invoice 11 Republican senators for fines associated with a June walkout, after determining a plan to dock their pay wasn’t legal.

According to Senate President Peter Courtney’s office, invoices for $3,500 — $500 per day for seven of the eight days Republicans refused to show up for a floor session — had not been sent as of Wednesday.

“Individual bills will be sent to each senator who missed work,” said Carol McAlice Currie, a spokesperson for Courtney, D-Salem. “If they refuse to pay, they will be sent through the regular debt collection process.”

One senator, Dallas Republican Brian Boquist, didn’t wait to receive a bill for the fines, which he believes are illegal. On July 3, he sent Courtney a check for $3,500, along with a letter indicating he was paying to allow him to “seek remedy in state and federal court.”

The decision to send out invoices is a change for the Senate’s Democratic leadership. When Republicans walked off the job on June 20— in a nine-day standoff over a bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, indicated she’d seek to garnish lawmakers’ pay by $500 for each day they didn’t appear for a floor session.

“The fines shall be collected by forfeiture of any sum that becomes due and payable to the absent member, including salary and per diem,” Burdick said, reading from a formal motion on the Senate floor.

But that approach was apparently impossible. Asked about the change Wednesday, Currie told OPB: “If anyone said that the Senate would be ‘docking Republicans’ pay’ for the walkout, they were in error. It’s not legally possible to dock them.”

Currie could not offer details Thursday about what provisions of Oregon law made docking members’ pay illegal.

The Office of the Legislative Counsel, which provides legal advice to lawmakers, declined to answer an inquiry on that matter, or to discuss what mechanism allowed Senate leadership to fine lawmakers in the first place. An inquiry to the Legislature's human resources director was not immediately answered.

Democrats have suggested in the past there is precedent in other states for such fines.

Word that invoices would be arriving appeared to be news to Republicans.

“As far as I know, no one has been issued any invoice in the Senate caucus office,” said Justin Brecht, a policy analyst for the Senate Republican office. “An invoice is different than what the Democrats announced — deducting pay from [Republicans’] legislative paychecks.”

The second Republican walkout in as many months was a way to delay a vote on House Bill 2020, which would have capped carbon emissions in Oregon and charged companies for their pollution. The bill wound up dying in the frenetic final days of the legislative session.

GOP senators' nine-day departure from the Capitol denied the Senate the quorum needed to conduct business. The 11 senators were not fined for the first floor session they missed, and Democrats canceled one planned session after they received threats from militia members, meaning the fines were only for seven days.

Republicans have received scrutiny for how they plan to pay those fines, even as they have hinted they will fight them in court.

On June 26, a coalition including labor unions, Basic Rights Oregon and Planned Parenthood,  filed complaintswith the secretary of state’s office and Oregon Government Ethics Commission. The complaints sought formal rulings that Republicans could not pay off their fines using campaign money or a crowdfunding effort that raised more than $40,000.

State officials said this week that the  complaints are still being scrutinized to see if they have merit. Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, told reporters last month his members did not plan to use outside cash to pay the fines.

“We’re all using our personal funds,” he said.

Baertschiger did not return an inquiry about potential legal challenges to the fines.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.