Tough choices, closed door deals result in Senate returning to business
SALEM — Four Oregon senators leading the charge to inject new lifeblood into the state's troubled education system said in their combined 88 years in the Legislature, the passage of the Student Success Act was the pinnacle of their career.
But passing the bill took some backroom horse trading with Republicans, and two deeply controversial bills were the casualties. One would have tightened the state's gun laws and the other would remove non-medical exemptions for vaccines for school children.
Bits and pieces of how the deal came together emerged in interviews Monday, though Senate leadership remains tight-lipped on the details.
Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, was a sponsor of the gun bill.
On Saturday, she went to work to kill it.
"It was terribly hard," Burdick said. "I won't deny that. People are counting on me. My district is counting on me. But today was a historic day. If that's what it took to make that happen — killing that particular bill — then I accept that."
The genesis of Burdick's tough choice is May 7, when the 12 Republican senators staged a walkout to protest the impending passage of the Student Success Act, which would bolster education funding, provide money for early learning, help feed hungry kids and address the mental health crisis in many of Oregon's schools.
Republicans said the state's public pension debt should be addressed first, to make sure the new money being raised doesn't get diverted to pay retirement costs instead of teachers.
By walking out, they denied the 18 Democrats a quorum, bringing the Senate to a halt.
It lasted four days. When Republicans again didn't show on Friday, both sides said they were in it for the long haul.
Then Gov. Kate Brown began negotiating with Senate Republicans, and over the weekend, everything changed. On Monday at 3 p.m., the education package came up for a vote in the Senate and eventually passed on a party-line vote.
As part of the deal, Republican senators agreed to forego protests on future votes for bills like cap and trade and paid family leave.
Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, declined to comment on whether his caucus would play nice. He said of Republicans' negotiations with Democrats, "It had a lot more to do than with just guns and vaccines."
He declined to elaborate, but he said the Republicans' denial of a quorum achieved what it set out to do: It brought Democrats and Republicans together to negotiate a way forward.
"We're here to do the people's work. If we fail, the citizens are the losers," Baertschiger said. "If we come together and find solutions, the citizens are the winners."
When asked if giving in sets a political precedent, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, doubled down on the school vote being a historic win.
"I'm not surprised it took this kind of effort," Courtney said. "In fact, I wasn't sure we could get there."
Burdick said while she's devastated to lose the gun bill, this is the most historic vote she's taken in her 23 years as a lawmaker. Burdick met with Baertschiger on Saturday and agreed to kill the bill.
That same day, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, met with Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, to concede on her vaccination bill, something Steiner Hayward has worked on for years. Steiner Hayward declined to discuss the deal.
The vaccine bill became one of the most controversial of the session, as opponents daily came to the Capitol to protest. Some wore stickers and made signs. Others duct-taped their mouths shut as a symbol for being silenced. By the thousands, they submitted written testimony. They regularly confronted lawmakers and staff in the building.
"The people opposing that bill just behaved reprehensibly around the building," Burdick said. "I'm afraid that some of them are going to feel those tactics worked. Those tactics had nothing to do with what happened today."
Republicans also secured a promise that Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, will have more of a say on the expansive carbon pricing proposal inching toward the House, although Courtney declined to elaborate.
Courtney has been Senate president since 2003. He has the power to ask the governor to call out the Oregon State Police to bring wayward senators back to the Capitol for a vote, and he exercised it in 2007 when Republicans attempted to boycott a tax vote.
This time, Courtney chose not to send state troopers after the missing Republicans, saying that would have been "a nightmare."
"I don't have to conquer or win," Courtney said. "I like it when the institution works."
Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, said on the Senate floor that the walkout needed a resolution.
"At some point, we have to come back together," Boquist said.
"Being in charge means you have to govern, and you have to figure out how to get people back into the building to govern," said Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, who was co-speaker in a House at the time evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. "When you have a majority, you have an expectation, and you have people that have expectations for you. You still have to run government."
While the walkout originally focused on the state's troubled pension system, any fix was notably absent from the final deal. Both sides refused to say how the gun control and vaccine bills were picked out of Republicans' expansive list of Democratic proposals they wanted dead.
When asked about how the deal was sorted out, Baertschiger just wanted to talk about the pension woes, though he declined to offer details on a solution and said the state should stop "adding to" the system's debt.
Late last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced an amendment to Senate Bill 1049 that would cut employee benefits and make other changes to PERS in an attempt to lessen annual payments to retirement benefits. That bill could move to the House floor as soon as this week.
"I do believe that if we don't get a handle on this PERS," Baertschiger said, "that we are going to be back in two years, and the educators are going to be asking for more money again."