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Politics & Government

Measure to limit walkouts in Oregon’s Capitol could be on November ballot

Democratic members of the Oregon Senate stand in the mostly empty Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in June 2019, after a walkout by Senate Republicans.
Democratic members of the Oregon Senate stand in the mostly empty Senate chambers at the Oregon Capitol in June 2019, after a walkout by Senate Republicans.

Walkouts have been used by both parties over the years, but have become a prominent part of the Republican playbook recently.

When Oregon Republicans blocked climate change legislation by fleeing the state in 2019 and 2020, the state’s public sector labor unions were among the loudest critics.

Now, those unions are spending big on a ballot measure that would severely limit the ability for the minority party to use that so-called nuclear option in the future. Under the proposal, a lawmaker who is marked unexcused by a chamber’s presiding officer 10 or more times in a single legislative session would be barred under the state Constitution from seeking re-election.

Backers of Initiative Petition 14, dubbed “Legislative Accountability 1,” are announcing Friday they will be submitting the last batch of signatures required to land their proposal on the ballot in November. Supporters plan to deliver a batch of nearly 58,000 signatures to the Oregon secretary of state, they said, giving the effort a total of more than 183,000 signatures.

To qualify for the ballot, state elections officials will need to determine that at least 149,360 of those signatures are from registered Oregon voters.

“It’s long past time that there were rules in place to make sure politicians show up to do their jobs,” Oregon Education Association President Reed Scott-Schwalbach, one of two chief petitioners, said in a statement Friday. “The Hold Politicians Accountable measure will make sure that there are finally consequences for politicians who violate their oath of office and desert their post.”

Because of the proposal’s reliance on unexcused absences, the law would place a lot of power in the hands of the speaker of the House and the Senate president, the two presiding officers who decide whether or not a lawmakers’ absence is excused.

Excused absences are fairly routine in Salem, with lawmakers filing requests with presiding officers explaining why they are unable to attend. They are not granted in cases where lawmakers are absent in order to block legislation.

Landing a measure on the Oregon ballot doesn’t come cheap in the COVID-19 era, where signatures are hard-won and hiring people to circulate petitions is pricey. Time and again in recent years, ballot measure efforts have found themselves unable to collect enough signatures to put a proposal before voters.

This year, the walkout measure appears likely to be the only initiative petition with a shot at making the ballot.

Earlier this month, grocers announced they were abandoning a ballot measure push to allow liquor sales in grocery stores, saying they could not collect enough signatures in time. And a proposal to outlaw high-capacity magazines and require gun buyers to obtain permits is rushing to collect tens of thousands of signatures before the July 8 deadline. Backers acknowledge they face a tough task, but hope recent mass shootings in Texas and New York give voters urgency to sign.

Oregon’s three largest public sector unions – the OEA; Service Employees International Union Local 503; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75 – countered those headwinds with cash. Campaign finance records show a political action committee affiliated with the petition spent nearly $1.6 million since last year, with most of that money going to petition circulators.

The committee, Legislative Accountability 1, received the vast majority of its funding from the big three public sector unions. Gov. Kate Brown and Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, have also chipped in, as have progressive advocacy groups.

“We haven’t been able to solve this problem legislatively for obvious reasons – they would likely walk out if we tried to refer something,” Wagner said in a text message Friday. “So I’m following the lead of community advocates who have put this proposal forward.”

Wagner isn’t talking theoretically. When he held a committee hearing last year to take up bills that would create penalties for walkouts, Republicans refused to attend.

The impetus for the measure is a result of Oregon’s atypical quorum rules. While most states allow legislative chambers to conduct business if a simple majority of members are present, Oregon is one of a handful that require two-thirds of lawmakers on hand.

That high bar has been used as a legislative weapon by both parties over the decades. Democrats walked away from the Capitol in 2001 to stymie maneuvering by majority Republicans on redrawing political maps. And since 2019, Republicans have repeatedly refused to show up to floor sessions in order to block various Democratic priorities.

Most prominently, both House and Senate Republicans fled the Capitol in 2020, successfully tanking a bill that would have regulated carbon emissions in the state, and forcing that year’s legislative session to adjourn with just three bills passed.

Republicans hold up walkouts as a necessary tool for the minority party, one they say was built into the state Constitution to act as a check on abuse by the party in power. “Quorum rules are the last tool available to promote bipartisan cooperation,” the Senate Republican Office said last year.

Oregon Democrats have at times agreed. When Democratic lawmakers in Texas fled the state in 2021, the move was cheered by their Oregon counterparts, who saw it as a principled step to protect voting rights.

But Democratic allies vowed to do something to stop Oregon walkouts following the 2020 session. They first formed a PAC called No More Costly Walkouts that paid for ads and mailers railing against vulnerable Republicans who’d walked away from the Capitol. One of the targets, former state Sen. Denyc Boles, R-Salem, failed to win re-election in 2020.

But when it came to actually altering Oregon law, the progressive groups have not pursued the most straight-forward option: changing the quorum rule from two-thirds of a chamber to a simple majority of members.

Instead, they floated 10 potential ballot measures last year, each of which included a different combination of consequences for walkouts. Those included $500 fines for unexcused absences and tinkering with legislative timelines to prevent lawmakers from being able to run out the clock on a session by walking out.

The coalition said it would pursue a measure that they could convince voters to support. They say that IP 14 proved the most simple.

“Oregonians just understand it on its face,” said Joe Baessler, associate director of AFSCME Council 75. “You don’t show up for work without a reason and you lose your job like anyone else. That makes it super popular and fair, and so it will pass.”

Supporters of the measure said polling suggests 84% of likely voters this year are likely to support their proposal.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.