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Capital Chatter: Democrats pull the plug

The 2020 legislative session, which should rank as a national embarrassment for Oregon, became all about scoring political points and pleasing diehard constituencies.

"The Twilight Zone," also known as the 2020 Oregon Legislature, has gone off the air.

Democrats pulled the plug and said it was Republicans' fault.

When Oregon went to every-year legislative sessions, one danger was that the 35-day session in even-numbered years would devolve into pre-election showboating. The 2020 legislative session, which should rank as a national — or global — embarrassment for Oregon, became all about scoring political points and pleasing diehard constituencies.

Oh, by the way, the deadline for filing for legislative seats and other offices in the May 19 primary election is 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 10.

The demise of the 2020 Legislature will be spun however meets the goals of the politician or interest group involved. Don't believe them. Like many a relationship status posted on Facebook, it's complicated.

Nuance and subtlety were absent for much of the 2020 Legislature. It came down to legislative leaders and their assorted partisan caucuses telling the other side, "You're not going to push us around anymore."

The Senate and House quit on Thursday afternoon, although at least one legislative committee still plans to meet Friday. The Legislature could not Sine Die — the formal conclusion of a legislative session — because the ongoing Republican walkout meant both chambers lacked a quorum to conduct business.

In retrospect, the animosity that hung over the 2019 Legislature was nothing compared to this year. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, on Thursday afternoon reflected the views of many Democrats who said they no longer could trust the Republican legislators.

One interest group distributed a press release titled, "Republicans responsible for shutting down 2020 legislative session." Democrats also have claimed that Republicans shut down government by walking out.

Technically, neither is true. Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, ended the session. And with the exception of the Legislature, state government continued functioning fine in the Republicans' absence.

The Republican legislative leaders — Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass and Rep. Christine Drazan of Canby — announced on Thursday morning that Republicans were willing to return Sunday, which is the constitutional deadline for finishing the session.

With an early start on Sunday, the Legislature could have passed scores of bills before the 11:59 p.m. deadline. However, most bills would have required Republican consent to suspend normal procedural rules. Democrats wanted such consent for all bills. Republicans would not agree.

Courtney and Kotek said that would have amounted to letting Republicans pick and choose which bills would live or die, despite the Democrats being the ones in power with supermajorities in both chambers. Republicans said their only request was that the carbon cap and trade legislation be referred to voters.

The House speaker and Senate president also said there wouldn't have been time Sunday for the debate that bills deserved. The reality is that lawmakers' floor speeches are mostly for show and have little influence on their colleagues. The ultimate outcomes are known ahead of time.

Democrats say the Republicans violated their oaths of office by not showing up for floor votes to act on legislation. Republicans say they upheld their duty to their constituents by preventing passage of harmful legislation — specifically the carbon bill, SB 1530 — and they continued to handle constituent work and other responsibilities while gone from the State Capitol.

Many changes were made in SB 1530 both during this year's legislation session and compared with the version on which it was based — HB 2020, which was sidelined in the 2019 Legislature because of the Senate Republican walkout. Democrats pointed to these changes as reasons the revised bill deserved passage. Republicans said the changes were insignificant and could not compensate for the overall flawed policy.

This has been a bizarre five weeks at the Capitol. Republican House members walked out Feb. 25. The Senate Republicans had walked out the previous morning, Feb. 24, after the Joint Ways and Means Committee approved SB 1530 and sent it to the Senate on a near party-line vote.

When lawmakers exited the Ways & Means committee room that morning, they found each side of the Capitol hallway lined with people. On one side were Oregonians applauding the Democratic legislators who had voted for the bill. On the other side were Oregonians cheering the Republicans who had voted against the bill.

Such is the state of democracy in Oregon.

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.