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Top Oregon Democrats Considering Suing The Governor Over Recent Vetoes

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signals a vote on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Courtney says the Legislature is considering filing suit against Gov. Kate Brown to challenge recent vetoes.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, signals a vote on Saturday, June 29, 2019. Courtney says the Legislature is considering filing suit against Gov. Kate Brown to challenge recent vetoes.

Senate President Peter Courtney says he worries Gov. Kate Brown is setting a bad precedent, but that a fight might not be worth it.

Top Democrats in the Oregon Legislature are mulling whether to file a lawsuit challenging a series of vetoes by Gov. Kate Brown enacted.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, confirmed Tuesday that he and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, have “talked a lot about” whether or not to ask a court to weigh in on the vetoes. They have until Oct. 20 to make that decision, he said.

“Like all disagreements and fights, there’s a time and there’s a place,” Courtney said. “I’m not sure if getting in a fight like this now is what we should be doing.”

Brown last week announced she’d be using her line-item veto authority to slash portions of two bills lawmakers passed in an August special legislative session.

The governor’s substantive changes impacted part of that session’s central budget bill, and are clearly legal. But an array of legislative officials — including the Legislature’s top attorney — say that Brown ventured into potentially illegal territory when she vetoed parts of another bill.

The situation creates a tricky situation for Courtney and Kotek, who must decide whether an intra-party fight is worthwhile at a time Oregon is facing stark challenges on an ever-growing number of fronts.

Courtney, a staunch defender of the legislative branch, was clearly feeling conflicted.

“I’m deeply bothered...philosophically in terms of how I view the legislative body,” he said Tuesday. But later in an interview, he argued that another political battle would not be in the state’s best interests as it responds to a flagging economy, a pandemic and its worst-ever wildfire season.

“Usually when you have catastrophes like this, you have a tremendous coming together,” he said. “While we’ve seen incredible volunteer efforts and communities pulling together, I sure don’t want the government pulling itself apart. That’s irresponsible. That’s not good.”

Courtney insisted that his hesitation was not just because Brown is a fellow Democrat. He noted that the Legislature would need to hire outside counsel to sue the governor, which could grow expensive.

“I do think the fact we’re in the same family is a factor,” he said, adding: “I’d like to think that if we had a Republican governor, I’d say the same thing.”

A spokesman for Kotek said Monday she was “still seeking legal input on the Governor’s veto actions.”

Courtney said the speaker is also uncertain about how to proceed.

The vetoes Brown enacted over the weekend likely don’t hold much interest for most Oregonians. The governor pulled back $100 million the Legislature had given itself to address emergency costs in the state’s social safety net, and nixed a series of budget cuts lawmakers put forward to close a $1 billion budget hole.

But some lawmakers say the specifics of the vetoes risk setting a bad precedent.

Under the state’s constitution, the governor is allowed to veto entire bills at will. But she is more limited when it comes to using “line-item” vetoes to excise sections of bills. That can only be done on “appropriations” bills that spend public dollars, or to remove a bill’s emergency clause.

Legislative officials say one bill she altered, House Bill 4304, does not qualify. Brown’s options, they say, were to allow the bill to pass or veto the entire thing.

The governor’s office has said it believes the bill qualifies as an appropriations bill.

The ultimate answer to that question, if one is coming, would have to be settled by the third branch of government: the courts.

“The governor will tell you, ‘All my legal experts say I can do what I did,’” Courtney said. “Short of going to court on this, we don’t know which side is up.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.