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Senate Republican Walkout Casts Uncertainty Over Fate Of Health Care Bills

February 24, 2020

Before the Republican Senate walkout on Monday, legislators were zipping through several health care bills.

A legislative panel approved a $2.3 million request to help unaccompanied homeless youth, sending that to the full budget committee. The panel also approved $1.2 million so Oregon can start to regulate the sales of vaping products.

Those bills passed a key layer of scrutiny on Monday, securing recommendations from the Ways and Means Joint Subcommittee for Human Services. The panel sent them to the full budget committee.  

To get passed, they need a vote in the upper chamber. But Republican senators walked out to avoid voting on a cap-and-trade bill that is a priority for Gov. Kate Brown. Republicans want that question put to voters as a ballot question, which Democratic lawmakers have resisted. The walkout prevents the Senate from having a full quorum and taking a vote on cap-and-trade or anything else. 

The walkout, a repeat version of 2019, halts the progression of all bills with less than two weeks to go before the March 8 deadline of the 35-day short session. Frustrated Democratic leaders, including Gov. Kate Brown and Senate President Peter Courtney, said work on other issues is at stake if a walkout drags out without resolution.

Big ticket spending items remain outside of cap-and-trade. For example, Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, is seeking a $140 million package for addressing homelessness and affordable housing needs in Oregon.

The Oregon Health Authority has requested $20 million to bulk up staff and increase capacity at Oregon State Hospital so the state-run mental health facility can keep up with demand. The hospital has struggled as “aid and assist” cases – jail inmates who need to get better before going to trial – have flooded the system.

Brown, asked in a news conference why the big budget bills didn’t go through earlier amid the known threat of a walkout, said waiting towards the end is part of the usual legislative process. The so-called “Christmas tree bill,” the nickname for the late-stage bill with many of the funding requests, is often used.

“Typically throughout the session, the budget bills go last – particularly what is known as the Christmas tree bill – and I think that’s the way the legislative leadership chose to do it this time, and it totally makes sense  to me,” Brown said.

She added: “The Senate Republicans were elected to do their job. They signed up for this. If they don’t like a bill they should vote ‘no.’ But leaving the building, shutting down the third branch of government is not the solution.”

Other bills would affect the quality of life for a broad swatch of Oregonians. For example, a bill that would cap out-of-pocket costs of insulin at $100 a month has passed the House, but still needs a Senate vote.

Kotek blasted the walkout in a statement.

“Legislators shutting down the government by walking off the job is a crisis for our democracy,” Kotek said. “This is not a game. Voters elected us to do our job. The members who refuse to show up and do their jobs are saying to a large majority of Oregonians: your vote doesn’t matter.”

Courtney, D-Salem, lamented that work on budget bills is now waiting for legislators to show up for a vote.

“We could have a remarkable session for the people of Oregon,” Courtney said.  

Courtney said he is “very sad” about the walkout.

“I’m just sick,” Courtney said. “I love the Legislature. I just don’t want to hurt her at all.”

For now, it’s too early to write off anything. Brown said there’s still time to salvage what’s left of the session if the walkout ends. She didn’t rule out a special session if the walkout continues beyond March 8.

“At this point in time, there’s plenty of time left in the session for people to come back into the building to work on the bills that are in front of us and to make sure that our budgets are balanced,” Brown said. “Right now, we have the time to get this done. That’s my focus right now.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected]g or via Twitter @BenBotkin1