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A measure to curb legislative walkouts has qualified for Oregon’s 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.

If passed, the measure would prevent lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from seeking re-election.

Oregon voters will have an opportunity to change the state constitution this November in order to discourage legislative walkouts that have become an increasingly prominent feature of state politics.

State elections officials on Tuesday said that an effort to prevent the tactic – often used by the state’s Republican minority in recent years – has qualified for the general election ballot after supporters submitted signatures in late May. The Secretary of State’s Office found that the petition included 155,343 valid signatures, roughly 84% of the signatures submitted and more than the 149,360 necessary to qualify.

Under initiative petition 14, nicknamed “Legislative Accountability 1″ by supporters, lawmakers would be barred from seeking re-election if they have 10 or more unexcused absences in a given legislative session.

The proposal, drummed up by Democratic-leaning labor unions, is meant to severely curtail the ability of the minority party to freeze legislative action by walking away from the Capitol, as Republicans did repeatedly in 2019 and 2020. Under quorum rules set out in the state constitution, two-thirds of a legislative chamber’s lawmakers must be present in order for the chamber to conduct business.

Both parties have employed legislative walkouts to achieve their aims in recent decades. Democrats abandoned Salem briefly in 2001, amid a political skirmish over redistricting. But with Republicans now holding minority status in both chambers, it’s been the GOP using what the party considers a nuclear option most recently.

Republicans fled the state in 2019 and again in 2020 in order to block a bill that could have capped greenhouse gas emissions in the state, ultimately dooming the proposal. Gov. Kate Brown responded by taking executive action instead.

The state’s powerful public-sector unions are attempting to counteract the tactic by threatening the political future of any lawmaker who participates in an extended walkout. Oregon’s three largest unions spent more than $1.5 million since last year to land the measure on the ballot, with most of that money going to petition circulators.

Because of the proposal’s reliance on unexcused absences, the measure 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.

Labor officials behind the proposal opted to go with a proposal based on absences, rather than simply changing the state’s quorum requirements because it’s easier for voters to understand, they have said.

“Oregonians just understand it on its face,” Joe Baessler, associate director of AFSCME Council 75, told OPB in May. “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.”

The measure’s backers say that polling shows a broad majority of Oregon voters support the idea.

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.