Session Costing Taxpayers Nearly $500,000 Ends With Little Done, Divisions Deeper Than Ever

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Democratic legislative leaders declared the session over on Thursday, blaming the failure on Republican lawmakers who walked out to prevent a quorum and kill a cap-and-trade bill.

The tumultuous session had no clear winners. Not a single health care bill passed both chambers. Budget bills died. Among them: lofty aspirations like $120 million to help homelessness and affordable housing; $3 million for a family court program; and $15 million for mental health clinics in rural Oregon. Even simple fixes died, like a bill allowing patients to opt out of Medicaid screening when seeking hospital charity help to avoid jeopardizing their efforts to gain citizenship. 

With unfinished work,  lawmakers may be asked to attend a special session later this year after legislative leaders shift through bills and decide what can be resurrected, especially much-needed budget bills. 

In the short term, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, will convene a legislative emergency board  meeting to prioritize funding for top crisis needs, such as COVID-19 and flood recovery in northeast Oregon. The board has limits, only allowing lawmakers to tap about $75 million.

Courtney and Kotek face one of the biggest tests of their political careers: coming up with a blueprint for a special session that will lure in Republican lawmakers who walked out and still got paid a $151 in per diems from Oregon taxpayers. 

The work will begin right away on what a special session would have.

“Right now, Oregon’s Legislature doesn’t exist,” Courtney told reporters on Thursday, adding “right now, this Legislature’s not functioning.”

“We’re tired of being held hostage,” Kotek said. 

The epic collapse of statesmanship will remain in Oregon history books long after the next session, special or otherwise. The legislative financial services office said taxpayers are on the hook to pay nearly $485,010 for the 35-day nonevent, all in per diems and mileage reimbursement, including to lawmakers who walked out. Courtney had better luck in 2019, when the Senate Republican walkout over cap-and-trade ended after Democrats killed vaccination and gun control bills. House Republicans didn’t walk out in 2019.

Certain details, like when a special session may start, are still in the works. But Courtney said it would likely be more than 30 days from now, and budget bills will definitely be in the mix.  Courtney’s other goals include knowing exactly how a special session would play out to avoid a walkout. 

“We will know what we’re doing or we’re not going in,” Courtney said. “We’re not going in half-baked.”

The Legislature’s breakdown may mark the start of an historical shift, when Oregon governors increasingly turn to executive orders instead of using  the legislative process. Gov. Kate Brown, who has championed the climate change bill, said in a statement that she will be taking executive action to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“When lawmakers all clear out of the Capitol and go home to their day jobs, I will be working with our state agencies to continue to support the work Oregonians care about despite lawmakers’ failure to properly steward and spend taxpayer dollars,” Brown said in a statement. “We will focus on bracing ourselves during a global health crisis, ensuring health care for our families and shelter for our neighbors, readying ourselves for a tough wildfire season ahead, and protecting our lands and children from the impacts of climate change.”

Brown said she’s willing to have a special session, but unless there is a plan for a functioning session, “I’m not going to waste taxpayer dollars on calling them back to the state Capitol.”

Political observers are closely following. 

The shutdown is unprecedented, said Jim Moore, political professor at Pacific University.

“This has not happened before,” he said. “I’m thinking of the Tom McCalls and Vic Atiyehs rolling over in their graves and wondering ‘What did the Republicans just do?’”

In the late 1800s, the Oregon Legislature once failed to meet because members of the House could not agree on the rules. But that’s not what happened in Salem on Thursday.

And the parties have used walkouts as a bargaining tool, which is what happened during the first one in the session last spring, also over cap-and-trade. 

“That’s pretty typical in walkouts in the past,” Moore said. The breakdown came shortly after House and Senate Republican leaders offered to return on Sunday, the final day of the session, to pass budget bills. That drew a quick rejection from Democratic leaders who accused them of trying to cherry pick bills.

“What the Republicans have done is cheat,” Kotek said on the House floor. “They have not played by the rules.

Senate Republican Leader Herman  Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass, pushed back on the notion that Republicans were abandoning their duty. Instead, he tried to cast it as a matter of doing what their constituents  wanted after cap-and-trade legislation came forward.

“Our base is going to insist on it, and I was dumbfounded by them bringing that bill forward,” he said in a video chat with reporters.

Even so, he wasn’t taking a victory lap. 

“I think this session was a failure, and we failed Oregonians,” he said, referring to the lack of compromise.

Republicans had pushed to bring  the cap-and-trade bill to voters on the ballot, and Democrats resisted that.

Baertschiger said he couldn’t commit to a special session without seeing the details. 

Though the country is split politically, the divisions in Salem appear to be deeper than elsewhere, Moore said.

“Oregon is the only place where this is happening,” Moore said.

Still, that could change. Courtney expressed concerns that the walkout could become a model that lawmakers in other states follow to kill bills.

That’s already happened elsewhere, such as a 2011 walkout in Indiana. Those lawmakers lost big in the next election. 

“That price won’t be paid (in Oregon) because the Republicans love the fact that they blocked this legislation,” Moore said. “In most districts, they’ll win and they’ll win big.”

Moore said the dynamics in this Legislature won’t change for perhaps four more years. 

For now, the only hope for different health care bills is to hope they can get redrafted and start anew during a special session or the 2021 regular session. 

The list is long and sets back some projects. For instance, one bill would have started a study of the behavioral health workforce and brought back recommendations in the 2021 session. Another bill was a study of unaccompanied homeless youth. 

There also was a bill that would have regulated stores that sell vaping projects, with an eye toward keeping minors from illegal purchases. Yet another would have prevented remote online sales of vaping products to prevent youngsters from accessing them.

The failed session also kills a bill that would have brought out-of-pocket insulin costs down to $100 a month for diabetics.

It’s also unclear what will become of a federal pilot program for behavioral health clinics, most of them in rural parts of Oregon. Lawmakers sought $15 million for that program, which also comes with millions more in matching federal Medicaid dollars. The program had been extended through the end of the session, but didn’t have funding to continue beyond that.

Above all else, the Legislature is responsible for passing a state budget.

Moore doesn’t expect the split to block health care legislation -- unless it’s got a big ticket price. In that case, the Republicans are likely to balk.

“Health care bills generally have good support across the board but when they cost money they don’t,” Moore said.

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

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