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Capital Chatter: Q&A on the Republican walkout

Dick Hughes tries to answer questions about the Republican walkout in the Oregon Senate.

Only a few days ago, it seemed preposterous. Yet indeed, the Oregon Senate Republicans left town — supposedly the state — thereby depriving the state Senate of a quorum to conduct business.

In the spirit of trying to make sense of what's going on, I offer this Q&A.

Q: How would you describe the Oregon Capitol atmosphere amid the Republicans' boycott?

A: Bizarre.

It reminded some people of the heightened drama at the Capitol in 2015 when then-Gov. John Kitzhaber was resigning, which led to then-Secretary of State Kate Brown becoming governor.

Q: Does the Legislature need the Senate Republicans?

A: Not for now – other than to pass the scores of bills that would die from inaction.

Lawmakers already passed a continuing budget resolution in case they couldn't settle the 2019-21 state budget before the new fiscal period begins July 1. That resolution can keep state government running into September.

Q: Why are you talking about the budget when the issue is climate change?

A: The Legislature's preeminent constitutional responsibility is to balance the state budget. The continuing resolution does that — temporarily.

By the way, the Legislature approves the budget by passing a slew of individual bills for agencies and programs. There is no overall two-year budget bill, much to the consternation of former Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland. He was appalled at the inability to get an overall but detailed picture of overall state finances.

Q: OK, but does this mean Republicans can stay away until the 2019 Legislature ends?

A: Yes.

But Democrats have threatened Republican senators with being fined $500 per day of absence and of being rounded up by the Oregon State Police. Both actions are unprecedented.

Also, Gov. Brown says she's prepared to call a special session to pass HB 2020, the carbon cap-and-trade bill over which the Senate Republicans walked out.

If Republican senators continued to deprive the Senate of a quorum for a special session, they also could be subject to fines and arrest – at least, that's what the supermajority Democrats say.

Q: You're getting ahead of yourself. What happens in the Legislature if the walkout continues?

A: Nothing happens that still needs Senate approval. If bills have already passed the Senate and if the House has made no subsequent changes in them, the House can approve them and send them to the governor for her signature.

Senate committees, which have a majority of Democrats, can act on bills but those still would need to pass the full Senate.

The constitutional deadline for the Legislature to adjourn is 11:59 p.m. June 30. Any bills that have not passed by then are dead … for this session. They could start anew in a special session or in the 2020 Legislature.

In any case, the Legislature will have to resume business sometime in the next few months in order to fund the state budget past September.

Q: Who's right and who's wrong?

A: As with most issues, answer is in the eye of the beholder.

Senate Republicans claim Democrats broke their commitment to "reset" relationships in the Senate and to allow Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, to have a substantive role in negotiating changes to HB 2020.

Democrats – who quashed gun-control and vaccination-mandate legislation in return for Republicans ending their previous walkout – say the Republicans have now broken that agreement. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said those two bills might now rise from the legislative death pile. Of course, that's only if the Senate has a quorum to conduct business.

The devil is the details, and it would appear that the details of that "reset" agreement were not nailed down. Instead, each side is interpreting them in their own way.

Q: How could the Republicans not do their duty?

A: With Democrats having a supermajority, the minority Republicans have few options to make their voices heard.

What people in any craft, including politics, forget is that talent is not the top criterion for success. Fifty to 70 percent of success in any field is tied to emotional intelligence – a combination of one's work ethic one's ability to work well with others.

This truly is the rural-urban divide playing out in Oregon politics. The two sides are talking past each other, as Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, observed on the Senate floor during a contentious debate on a bill to ban coyote-hunting contests.

Humans have a profound need to be heard. Democrats think they're hearing; Republicans think they're not being heard; and vice versa.

Q: Is a quorum-depriving boycott a new tactic?

A: No. It's been a tool for Democrats as well.

But my favorite story is courtesy of Gary Warner, the statehouse reporter for The Bulletin. He wrote about Bend Republican Sen. Neil Bryant's experience when minority Republicans in 1993 abruptly decided to briefly deny the Senate the quorum over a bill dealing with airports.

Bryant hid out in the House Speaker's Office, where Republican Bev Clarno – now secretary state – reigned. He figured Oregon State Police would not look for him there.

Warner wrote: "Asked what happened with the Oregon State Police, Bryant said the officers were likely not very motivated with the task of tracking down absent lawmakers. 'We voted on their budget.'"

Q: How motivated will State Police be this time?

A: No idea. Gov. Brown held a press conference Thursday afternoon. She criticized the Republican walkout but refused to answer reporters' questions about the State Police.

It was a strange scene and an odd response from Brown. Her use of State Police to round up politicians obviously would be the No. 1 question asked by journalists.

One reporter said afterward that it was the worst press conference he'd seen. (However, I think Kitzhaber's press conference about the income tax returns of his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, was even less productive.)

Q: Is there a solution?

A: Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural, remain far apart on the merits — let alone the many intricacies of HB 2020.

It was been suggested that the Legislature first pass – or at least agree to — a bill to amend HB 2020 more to Republicans' liking, and then the Senate would pass HB 2020. Each side could declare victory and go home.

I don't know whether that divide can be bridged — that is, how much each side is willing to give. Negotiations continued well into Wednesday evening, the night before Republicans launched their walkout. On Thursday, Majority Leader Burdick lambasted Republicans and said HB 2020 should be passed in its current form.

Q: Where is the governor on this?

A: Good question. Her chief of staff, Nik Blosser, has been intimately involved in negotiations. Brown met briefly Wednesday evening with Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass and Thursday morning the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Backers of HB 2020 filled the Capitol, urging Democrats not to cave. At her Thursday afternoon press conference demanding action on the bill, Brown was flanked by young people supporting it.

Q: To reiterate, how many senators are needed for a quorum?

A: Twenty. Democrats have 18; Republicans, 11. The Senate currently has 29 members because a replacement has not yet been chosen and sworn in to succeed the late Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem.

Winters is a former Senate Republican leader and had a close personal and working relationship with Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

An unending question will be how the 2019 Legislature might have fared if Winters had been in good health and able to fully participate.

Q: When will Republican senators return to the Oregon Capitol?

A: Who knows.

In the meantime, check out the lyrics of the 1949 song, "M.T.A.," and later versions in which it informally was known as "Charlie on the MTA."

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.