State police communicating with missing Oregon senators as Democrats balk at any new deal

Senate President Peter Courtney goes through motions of convening the Senate on Thursday, June 20, after Republican senators made good on their plan to abandon the Capitol. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

SALEM — Thursday’s political standoff over a plan to cap carbon emissions in Oregon has left the Legislature listing toward its final deadline at the end of the month.

Eleven Senate Republicans have gone on the lam, leaving Democrats two senators short of having enough Senate members present to vote on bills.

Democrats spent most of Thursday confined to the Senate floor, awaiting the return of colleagues who don’t appear to be coming back anytime soon. They chatted, scrolled on their tablet computers or sat in silence.

Meantime, rumors flew around the Capitol building, suggesting some senators had high-tailed it to Montana and Idaho. A supporter started a crowd funding page to pay for their expenses while they’re beyond the grasp of the Oregon State Police. By Thursday evening, the effort had raised nearly $10,000.

Amid the fracas, Gov. Kate Brown called a mid-afternoon press conference at which she spoke for less than five minutes — charging that Republican senators “failed to do their job” and insisting they return to the Capitol — before shaking hands with youth environmental activists arrayed behind her and departing, ignoring shouted questions from reporters.

In a move not taken by a governor in more than a decade, Brown authorized the State Police to locate absent senators and bring them back to the Capitol.

Several Republican senators said Thursday morning they had left the state, placing them outside the state police jurisdiction, and that their peers have done likewise.

Brown said Thursday she’s confident in the state police’s abilities.

“Today, I’m utilizing established relationships to have polite communication with these senators,” OSP Superintendent Travis Hampton wrote in an internal email to troopers Thursday afternoon. “While we obviously have many tools at our disposal, patience and communication is and always will be our greatest strategic asset.”

“Out of state resources” are assisting OSP, according to the agency.

The agency declined to elaborate further or say how many state police troopers are part of the effort, but that it has been in contact with “several” of the senators.

“As the superintendent of the Oregon State Police, I respect Oregon’s Constitution, and I am duty-bound to protect the rights described in it, just as I am duty-bound to enforce our laws irrespective of any personal or political beliefs I may have,” Hampton wrote to his agency employees. “In this case, we will work with the governor’s office and members of the Legislature to find the most expeditious way to bring this matter to a peaceful and constructive conclusion. With the help of the good and committed people we have on our team and both sides of the Oregon Legislature, I’m confident we’ll get it done. I just want to ensure you all I am personally engaged in this issue and confident we will do our part to uphold the best traditions of the department.”

Sens. Cliff Bentz of Ontario, Dallas Heard of Roseburg and Tim Knopp of Bend responded to requests for comment from Oregon Capital Bureau.

All three said they had left the state and would not return until the minority party’s concerns were addressed.

Separately, Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass released a statement.

Sens. Brian Boquist of Dallas, Fred Girod of Stayton, Bill Hansell of Athena, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, Alan Olsen of Canby, Kim Thatcher of Keizer and Chuck Thomsen of Hood River by Thursday evening had not returned calls or emails asking for comment.

Republicans hold a 12th Senate seat, but it’s currently vacant due to the recent death of Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem. Marion and Polk county commissioners are expected to name a successor next Tuesday.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, asked Brown to dispatch the state police after formally summoning all 29 senators for what is known as a “call of the Senate” just after 11 a.m. Thursday.

Courtney also approved a motion by Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, to dock absent senators $500 for every day they don’t show up, starting Friday.

“This is the saddest day of my legislative life,” Courtney said. His voice cracked at times as he implored senators to return to the Capitol.

“I beg and beseech my fellow legislators to come to the floor. I need you. The Legislature needs you. The people of Oregon need you,” Courtney pleaded. “If you’re mad, and you’re angry and upset, take it out on me. Say things about me. Come at me. Don’t do this to the people of Oregon. Don’t do this to this branch. You’re too good. You’ve been chosen.”

After concluding his remarks, Courtney sank into a chair behind the dais and buried his face in his hands for several minutes.

Courtney was first elected to serve as president of the Senate — then evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans — in 2003.

When most of the Senate Republican caucus skipped out on a week’s worth of floor sessions in May, playing hardball over a business tax proposal, Courtney declined to fine them or ask the governor to have police pursue them.

Courtney previously had then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski send state troopers to fetch a Republican senator in 2007 so that Democrats could approve a tax plan that Senate Republicans opposed.

That senator, Roger Beyer of Molalla, told the Oregon Capital Bureau he was preparing to go to Salem with the state police when the Democratic leaders called it off, having secured a 20th senator for the vote through negotiations.

Negotiations also put an end to last month’s walkout, when Republicans skipped floor sessions for several days.

Brown stepped in personally to resolve it.

She made an agreement with Baertschiger that Democrats would drop a gun control bill, as well as a controversial proposal to end non-medical vaccine exemptions that only one Republican senator publicly supported, in exchange for Republicans returning to work for the rest of the legislative session.

The Oregon Capital Bureau confirmed Thursday that Democrats, who believe Republicans reneged on their earlier deal, are considering reviving the gun and vaccine bills.

Republicans say that it was Democrats who welched on the accord between Brown and Baertschiger. They were promised an undefined “reset” of the cap-and-trade plan in House Bill 2020, which Bentz and Knopp said Thursday never took place.

“They essentially left us with no choice but to protest the breaking of the agreement,” Knopp said.

Asked about the prospect of Democrats bringing back the gun and vaccine bills, Knopp responded, “I think if they are looking for a solution, they will not move in that direction.”

Brown said Wednesday that if Republicans walked out again, they would be going back on their word.

But she dodged a question at Thursday’s brief press conference about whether she regrets making the May deal.

“I think it’s critical that the Oregon Legislature move forward on legislation to tackle global climate change,” Brown said. “Oregon needs to move forward, and we must do it now.”

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a chief architect of the cap-and-trade proposal who negotiated unsuccessfully with Republicans over the bill on Wednesday, said he thinks the walkout was some time in the making.

The atmosphere in the Senate has been charged for weeks. Since Republicans returned from their May boycott, multiple floor sessions have been derailed by testy exchanges between senators.

On Wednesday, during a debate on an unrelated bill, Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, accused Democrats of attempting a “political coup” and told Courtney that if he sends the state police after him, “Hell is coming to visit you personally.”

Boquist’s subsequent apology for his outburst didn’t satisfy Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who said the Senate “cannot allow” statements of that sort.

Later that afternoon, Boquist was recorded on camera telling a KGW news crew that any state troopers who come to take him to the Capitol ought to be “bachelors” and “heavily armed.”

“I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon,” said Boquist, a U.S. Army veteran.

The remarks didn’t shock political observers — Boquist has a reputation for bombastic and sometimes offensive remarks — but they grabbed headlines in Oregon and nationally.

The Rev. Chuck Currie, an outspoken supporter of Democratic causes who serves as university chaplain and director of the Center for Peace and Spirituality at Pacific University, called for Boquist to resign and suggested he should face a criminal investigation.

“His comments were entirely inappropriate, perhaps illegal, and anti-democratic,” Currie wrote in a letter to Courtney and Baertschiger. “No one, least of all an elected official, should threaten law enforcement with gun violence.”

The state constitution makes clear that senators can’t face legal consequences for comments they make on the Senate floor. However, it doesn’t provide the same privilege when they are outside the Senate chamber.

State law allows any branch or department of the government to call upon the state police to enforce laws and regulations, if the governor gives permission.

The Constitution gives legislators the power to “compel” absent members to attend so that the Legislature can conduct its business.

Many conservatives had a different take on Boquist’s comments. Boquist was showered with support on Twitter as the video of him implying state troopers could expect a confrontation began to circulate Wednesday.

On social media, elements of Oregon’s militia movement shared plans to help Republican senators if they needed it.

Danielle Bethell of Keizer, was just elected to the Salem-Keizer School Board, which oversees Oregon’s second-largest school district, last month. She wrote on social media that she was proud Boquist represented her, but in an interview said she didn’t support the threat.

“I think what people are missing is both sides of this conversation,” Bethell said.

While Boquist’s statement may have sounded like a threat, Bethell believes Oregon families are threatened by cap-and-trade.

Democrats and other supporters of the cap-and-trade proposal disparaged Republican senators for abandoning their duty.

The Legislature is required to approve a state budget before it adjourns, and the senators’ departure leaves several major budget and policy bills in limbo.

“I don’t have the opportunity to not show up,” said Mimi Casteel, a Hopewell vintner who also is working on legislation. She compared work on her farm to Republicans’ job as legislators.

“It’s a tactic,” Dembrow said late Thursday afternoon. “And unfortunately, it seems to have worked for them in the May experience, and their feeling seems to be, ‘Well, if it worked once, let’s do it again.’ And then the question becomes, where does this end?”

Dembrow said he was troubled by the potential “impact on the institution.”

“I think this runaway, Republican shutdown strategy is really an existential threat to the way that we do business for Oregonians in the state capitol,” said Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland.

“I’m a mom of two little kids, and you don’t give a tantruming toddler candy,” Fagan said, “Because then you get more tantrums. And I think we’re at that phase where we realize, that any gives to the Republicans is giving a tantruming toddler candy, and it’s time for us to stay strong and to make sure that they don’t find these tactics to be successful.”

Republicans see it differently.

“The work stoppage rests solely on the Democrats’ unwillingness or inability to compromise,” Knopp said. “We have no constitutional duty to stand there and allow them to run an agenda that’s damaging to Oregonians and their ability to put food on the table.”

The Senate unanimously approved what is known as a “continuing resolution” earlier this week. That resolution will allow state agencies that haven’t had new budgets approved to keep operating at their current service level through Sept. 14.

A spokeswoman for Brown said she intends to sign it into law.

Bentz said he’s prepared to spend the entire summer in Idaho if Democrats won’t offer concessions to bring Republicans back to Salem.

The Legislature must adjourn by June 30.

However, Brown said Wednesday she plans to call a special session on July 2 if the legislature hasn’t concluded its business by then.

Meanwhile, the House is continuing to meet as usual.

On Thursday, it approved several major bills, including an increase to Oregon’s tobacco tax; a series of housing proposals, including House Bill 2001, Speaker Tina Kotek’s plan to require that certain cities allow multifamily housing in single-family residential neighborhoods; and a bipartisan plan to offer paid family and medical leave to virtually all Oregon workers. They await Senate approval.

Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148. Withycombe is a reporter for the East Oregonian working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

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