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Capital Chatter: Are big issues for short sessions?

The ballot measure creating the short session did not specify what business could be conducted.

This is the craziest legislative session that Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, has seen. And that was before he and most other Republicans walked away from the 2020 Legislature.

And before the four Democrats on the House Rules Committee voted Thursday afternoon to subpoena the missing House Republicans.

"The pace is like nothing I've ever experienced before," Post said when we talked last Friday. "But I almost feel like every year I say, 'Whew, there can't be a session that was bigger or harder or tougher or longer than this one.'

"Well, I'm saying it again. This is the craziest session I've been involved in yet and this is now my — which is hard to believe — sixth session, counting long and short."

Back in 2010, Oregon voters approved annual legislative sessions. Measure 71 limited sessions in odd-numbered years to 160 days and created 35-day sessions in even years. The ballot measure did not specify what business could be conducted during the short sessions.

There's been a lot of talk about whether the 2016, 2018 and 2020 sessions, because of their complexity of issues, were what the voters intended. However, in checking legislative records, Post found little definition of what the short session would be.

"If you go back and look at the ballot measure, it just said, 'Do you want annual sessions? Yes or no.' It didn't say, 'Annual sessions in which we'd do budgets only,'" he said. "I think because of the time constraints, naturally people just thought this would be budgets and simple policy bills."

But the number of controversial issues has ramped up each year, he said.

This year's overwhelming issue — what Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, described variously as the 10,000-pound chicken in the room or the 6,000-pound penguin — is carbon cap and trade.

On Monday morning, the Legislature's Joint Ways & Means Committee passed the Senate version, SB 1530, on a near party-line vote. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, voted no.

Courtney had supplanted Johnson from the committee when last year's version came up for a vote. This time he showed Johnson, a co-chair of the committee, more respect. He simply added himself to the committee to ensure sufficient votes for passage.

Republican senators, with the exception of Tim Knopp of Bend, then left the Capitol and have not been seen there since. When the award-winning Summit High School Robotics Team brought its robot to the Capitol on Thursday, Portland Democratic Sen. Michael Dembrow leaned down and told the robot, "Find Republicans." It didn't work.

On Monday afternoon, House Republicans had held a public meeting to quiz state officials about the House Democrats' version of carbon cap and trade, HB 4167. A few state officials showed up. A few Republican representatives came and went. The legislators sought to pin down Kristen Sheeran, the director of Gov. Kate Brown's Oregon Carbon Policy Office, and other officials on Republican talking points.

On Tuesday morning, House Republicans joined the walkout — except for Cheri Helt

of Bend.

That means lawmakers in each chamber are one person short of having the required two-thirds membership present to conduct business.

Knopp and Helt represent swing districts, so it is not surprising that they would be the ones to remain at the Capitol doing their work. Deschutes County has about the same number of Democrats and Republicans, but Helt's district has a large Democratic edge.

She has been filling in for her Republican colleagues, including taking over meetings with their constituents who've traveled to Salem.

As for Rep. Post, on Monday he issued a statement supporting what he said was Keizer Sen. Kim Thatcher's "bold move" to walk out and protect Oregonians from the costs of the carbon plan.

In his statement after joining the walkout Tuesday, Post said, "We are using one of the last tools we have in the minority by denying quorum to ensure this legislation does not move forward."

If Republicans do return, the betting is that it will be on the last scheduled day of the session — Sunday, March 8. They could agree to suspend the regular rules that day and pass dozens of budget bills and other non-controversial pieces of legislation but not allow either carbon bill to come to the floor.

If they returned earlier, a carbon bill could advance to a floor vote, which Republicans don't want.

Democrats count on voters being upset with Republicans for being absent, which Democrats are calling "a taxpayer-funded vacation." But Republicans have strong backing within their districts, saying the Democrats' refusal to work Republicans led to the boycott.

"'I've told Senator Courtney that we will come back with enough time to pass the bills that the short session was intended for, if cap and trade dies or is referred to voters," Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger of Grants Pass said in a statement Thursday.

Throughout the Capitol, the mood is grim. When asked how she was doing, one legislative staffer muttered, "I'm upright."

Another staffer likened the political process to a baseball game: The final score doesn't tell what happened. You have to watch it play-by-play.

By the way, if Gov. Brown winds up calling a special session to deal with carbon and budget bills, June could be a potential date — after the May primary election and before the fall election season.

To make sense of all this, I turned to veteran political analyst Jim Moore, a psephologist (a person who studies elections) and political science professor at Pacific University.

"The walkout is about making a statement to base voters. Most seats are completely safe," he said Wednesday. "In fact, with the way things have gone in the past two days, if the walkout were to end, there is a danger that Republican incumbents might attract primary challengers who would run on the 'get out and stay out' platform of continued walkouts.

"If this dynamic occurs, the primary election could be very interesting.

"As for November, it is a long time between now and then. The presidential race, possibly some ballot measures, and issues of economics, jobs, health care will most likely be on the tops of voters' minds — not a walkout eight months earlier."

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.