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Oregon Union Leaders Say They Will File Initiative Aimed At Stopping Legislative Walkouts

<p>The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. A new bill passed by the Legislature this summer drastically limits application of the death penalty.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have played down the idea of trying to amend the Constitution to prevent future walkouts of the kind staged by Republicans during last year’s legislative session. 

But a top labor leader says public employee unions are planning to file a proposed ballot initiative that would threaten legislators who walk out with being tossed from office.

Joe Baessler, political director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said polling conducted by the unions show that “voters really seem to like the idea that if you don’t show up to work, you lose your job.”

The proposed constitutional amendment, Baessler said, would oust legislators who have at least 10 unexcused absences in a year.

Republican state senators – out-numbered by an 18-12 Democratic majority – staged two walkouts last year to prevent the Senate from going into session. The Oregon Legislature, one of just a few states with strict quorum rules, requires that two-thirds of the members be present to conduct business. 

The first walkout failed to stop a new business tax, but Democrats did agree to drop bills dealing with guns and vaccinations to get the Republicans to return.  The second walkout helped deep-six a bill on carbon emissions aimed at combatting climate change.

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, has introduced a proposed constitutional amendment for the February session that would ask voters to remove the two-thirds quorum rule. But Burdick, Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, all played down the likelihood of moving forward with this proposal.

“It’s always a heavy lift to go for a constitutional amendment,” said Burdick, but she suggested there could be discussion about “fines or some kinds of consequences.”

Baessler said any legislative action aimed at curbing walkouts could just trigger another absence by GOP lawmakers, who have refused to rule out taking that option again.

A memo from a California polling firm that conducted research for the unions claims that about two-thirds of likely general election voters are at least inclined to support a measure that would oust legislators who had at least 10 unexcused absences. The poll also shows 59% somewhat or strongly opposed to last year’s “repeated walkouts” by Senate Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschigar, R-Grants Pass, said he didn’t know whether voters would support a ballot measure cracking down on unexcused absences.  But he questioned how much it would really accomplish.

Even if such a measure passed, Baertschigar said, “in districts like mine, they’ll [toss out a legislator] and people will just re-elect you again.  I think it’s just a usual thing of Democrats figuring out another way to gain more power.”

He also suggested that Democrats should be careful what they do, because they could someday find themselves in the minority.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.