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Capital Chatter: This is already outdated

Events are moving quickly as the legislature moves ever closer to its mandated closure date. But things could fall apart sooner than that.

By the time you read this sentence, it will be outdated. That's how fast things are moving, or falling apart, in the Oregon Capitol.

Under the Oregon Constitution, this year's legislative session can last 35 days – From Feb. 3 until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, March 8. It could end far sooner.

As Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, wrote in his constituent newsletter this week, "With the 2020 short session of the legislature now exactly at its midpoint, we really know nothing more about the Big Question — Will Republican legislators walk out again to prevent a vote on a Climate Bill? — than we did when we returned to Salem February 3."

Yet the session also is playing out as predicted. Republican senators seem ready to walk to avoid passage of SB 1530 or its supposed identical version, HB 4167, that now has been introduced in the House. Some senators already are buying plane tickets to out-of-state destinations, where Oregon State Police have no authority to fetch them back to the Capitol.

Some Democrats profess shock that this could really happen, as they believe a walkout will be a death knell for Republican candidates in the 2020 legislative elections. Yet, it would not surprise me if some Democrats privately hope for a walkout, either because they don't want to vote on the carbon bill either or because they think Republicans will be shooting themselves in the election foot.

Democrats, including Gov. Kate Brown, publicly insist that Republicans have a sacred duty to be at the Capitol to vote on behalf of their constituents. This, of course, overlooks at least three facts: 1) Democrats have walked out in the past, although not during the current era of time-limited legislative sessions. 2) Lawmakers of either party sometimes are conveniently absent – officially excused – for votes on politically sensitive bills on which they don't want to be on the record voting one way or the other. 3) Republican senators are finding strong support among their constituents for walking out and thereby depriving the Senate of a quorum to conduct any business, including passing the carbon cap and trade legislation.

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, reminded his colleagues on the Senate Rules Committee that the minority party shut down the Oregon House in 1897 in a walkout that ultimately lead to creation of the initiative and referendum process in Oregon.

"Without the denial of quorum at the end of the 19th century by a small group of courageous legislators, Oregonians would not have the freedom and ability to vote on important bills," he said in a press release later, adding that instead of sending the carbon bill to voters, today's Democrats want to arrest and fine legislators who deny a quorum.

The carbon bill has strong support in urban areas, but officials from at least 24 of Oregon's 36 counties have passed resolutions opposing SB 1530.

As people around the Capitol keep saying in various tones of voice, the situation is "fluid." A Republican walkout might or might not happen. It might not be a full walkout. If all 18 Democratic senators show up, two Republican senators are needed for a quorum. Theoretically, one Republican, someone facing a potentially tough re-election campaign in a swing district, could remain at the Capitol without creating a quorum.

On the other side of the Capitol, Bend Rep. Cheri Helt was the lone Republican who attended the House floor session on Tuesday evening. By making that arrangement, the Republicans simultaneously deprived Democrats of a quorum for business and of the ability to claim that all the Republicans had boycotted the session.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby told me that by not attending the evening session, her caucus was communicating "how important it is that the pace of this building really be open and responsive enough that Oregonians have the chance to engage."

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, publicly thanked several Republicans who had formally submitted excuses for missing the evening session: Cedric Hayden, Fall Creek; Rick Lewis, Silverton; Ron Noble, McMinnville; Bill Post, Keizer; and Sherrie Sprenger, Scio.

Kotek did not thank Helt for being there. And, not surprisingly, she bounced longtime Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, from his position as chair of a budget panel. Smith will remain on the Ways & Means General Government Subcommittee, but Kotek named Ashland Democrat Pam Marsh to replace him as chair.

That was both punishment and a warning. Smith does remain co-vice chair of the full Ways & Means Committee — for now.

House Republicans also have slowed the process by refusing to waive the constitutional requirement that bills be read word-for-word before final debate and voting. That has created much longer House floor sessions and resulting rescheduling or cancellations of committee meetings.

The tactic frustrates even some Republicans. It does, however, provide House members with ample time for catching up on their email, reading and other work.

On Thursday, the House got through nine bills, most of which passed with strong bipartisan support. Despite deep divisions over carbon, firearms and a few other bills, lawmakers are working harmoniously — at least on the surface — on much of the fix-it legislation and other non-controversial items.

Senators from both parties were practically giddy on Monday when Bill Schonely, the longtime voice of the Portland Trail Blazers, was on the floor during passage of SCR 205 commemorating the team's 50th anniversary.

"I never thought I'd see the day that I'd get to see him up close and in person, but I'm all excited now, because I get to see Bill Schonely. And I hope he'll shake my hand for some time," Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said from the rostrum.

The bill passed 29-0 with one senator absent, and Schonely — with Courtney's blessing — thanked the Senate and uttered "Rip City, everybody!"

Still, the session is exacting a physical and mental toll throughout the Capitol. Several legislators have wound up in the hospital. Others are at the Capitol but struggling. The pace is grueling and even keeping track of the date or time can be difficult.

As Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said a few days ago: "In a short session, all time is relative. It's difficult to remember exactly."

The 2020 Legislature will adjourn. That is a certainty. When and under what circumstances remains a mystery.

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.