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Capital Chatter: Political math confounds the Legislature

To thwart the Democrats, the Republican senators have been refusing to provide a quorum.

The problem with politics is it's political.

That is a common sentiment around the Oregon State Capitol as the 2019 Legislature trudges toward adjournment next month. Another frequent comment is, "This is a weird session."

Indeed.

As of this writing, the "superminority" Republicans in the Oregon Senate remain at loggerheads with the supermajority Democrats.

It's a matter of political math.

There are 18 Democrats and 12 Republicans in the 30-member Senate. It takes 18 votes — a three-fifths majority — to pass a tax-increase bill in the Senate. A quorum of 20 senators is required to hold a floor session for conducting business, including acting on bills.

If all Democrats stick together — a big "if" in the Senate — no Republican support is necessary to pass HB 3427, the Student Success Act, and send it to Gov. Kate Brown for her signature. Brown already has capitulated on her demand that the bill include money for state universities and community colleges.

The Senate Republicans consider HB 3427 "a gross receipts sales tax disguised as an education bill." They want the bill sent back to a legislative committee for changes and for the Legislature to confront the ever-increase impact that PERS has on city, county, school, fire district, community college, university and state budgets.

To thwart the Democrats, the Republican senators have been refusing to provide a quorum.

The Senate convenes at 11 a.m. Only 18 or 19 senators are present. (Republican Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend has been at the Capitol on Wednesday and Thursday.) Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, dispatches Senate staff to look for at least one more senator. The sergeant-at-arms and her assistant check the third and fourth floors of the Senate office wing at the Capitol. They find none. Courtney then recesses the floor session until afternoon, and the process repeats, starting over each morning.

The two sides are talking. But Are they listening … ?

At some point, the rift will be resolved and the Oregon Student Success Act will become law in one form or another. The options include:

• Senate Democrats will make enough concessions on PERS, HB 3427 and/or other legislation that any hold-out Democrats will vote for the bill.

• If lawmakers trust one another, they may agree to pass HB 3427 and then modify it through another bill this session. Lacking that trust, they will demand HB 3427 be amended, which most Democrats staunchly oppose.

• Democrats may offer such concessions as killing certain bills (especially if the legislation has little chance of passage anyway) or increasing funding for favored projects.

• House and/or Senate Democrats will hold hostage one or more bills that are highly important to a key Republican senator until she or he agrees to vote for HB 3427.

• President Courtney will dispatch the Oregon State Police to retrieve recalcitrant Republicans to have a quorum. However, three are ill, so forcing them to come to the Capitol would not look good. Republicans could escape across state lines — or possibly to a tribal reservation — to where OSP lacks jurisdiction.

• Republicans will get enough concessions to save face and return to work, enabling a vote on the bill

• Republicans or Democrats will bow to external public pressure and concede completely.

Both sides have talking points that are true.

Democrats say there has been immense public input because the bipartisan, bicameral Joint Committee on Student Success toured the state, listening to Oregonians discuss educational needs. Republicans counter that only recently has the proposed $1 billion-per-year corporate activity tax come to the forefront, receiving little focus during that statewide educational tour.

Democrats say few people attended the subsequent public hearings held by the subcommittee putting together the tax. Republicans say the negotiating mostly happened behind closed doors, and small business interests were left out.

Republicans say the Legislature could divert the $2 billion in taxes per biennium and use the money for other needs — unless voters pass a ballot measure to create a constitutionally protected fund for the prescribed uses. Democrats say they crafted the legislation as best they could to prevent future legislative theft.

Meanwhile, House Republicans continue to slow the supermajority steamroller by insisting that each bill be read word-for-word before being debated and voted on.

Lawmakers have one eye on the clock — the 2019 Legislature's constitutional deadline to adjourn is 11:59 p.m. on June 30 — and the other eye on the bills piling up.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.