Protesters cheer the Senate Republicans’ walkout at a rally in June. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)
When Senate Republicans walked out of the Capitol in June and fled the state, they infuriated Democrats, who called them out for abandoning their jobs and preventing a vote on climate change legislation.
Speculation arose that the wayward Republicans would use campaign money to fund the protest that some in jest called a vacation.
Republicans were gone for nine days. The Senate was called to order despite Republicans’ absence, on eight of those, including a Sunday, when work theoretically could have been done.
Senate Democrats agreed to impose a $500 per-day fine on each Senator who was missing, but so far have yet to make good on that request.
Senate Republican spokeswoman Kate Gillem said the threat “looks like a bluff.”
Senate President Peter Courtney’s Chief of Staff, Anna Braun, said the plan is to still send invoices for the fines, but they don’t yet know when they will be sent.
Lawmakers receive a $149 payment to cover daily expenses — called “per diem” — while the legislature is in session. Republicans still collected that money when they were absent, according to Legislative Administration.
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The Oregon Capital Bureau reached out to all 11 senators who fled by email and phone, and heard back from five: Senators Cliff Bentz, Herman Baertschiger, Alan Olsen, Bill Hansell and Kim Thatcher.
All said they used personal funds to pay for travel and haven’t received a bill for the fines.
Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, paid $3,500 — which would equate to the seven work days missed — and said he did so to gain standing in court.
Baertschiger said he never advised the caucus to use personal funds but believes everyone did on their own.
When asked if he was exploring options for the senators to be reimbursed, such as through campaign funds, Baertschiger said “No, I think we’ve just all agreed to pay for it with personal money.”
Bentz agreed there was no directive on how to pay for expenses, but said the caucus is looking into reimbursement.
“The only thing that was really said was save your receipts in case there is a reimbursement opportunity,” Bentz said. “I know people are looking into it, but I know the safest thing was for me to pay out of my own pocket, so that’s what I did. I haven’t decided whether I will ever ask for reimbursement.”
A policy analyst for Senate Republicans, Justin Brecht, said the caucus has asked outside attorneys and the state ethics commission about that issue.
Since the circumstances surrounding the walkout are unprecedented, this is new legal ground, Brecht said.
“It’s still kind of a legal question we haven’t had answered about how one could go about that,” Brecht said.
Bentz said he drove about 1,000 miles, paid for six nights in a motel and had to feed himself.
“These expenses are real,” he said. Bentz said he’s received “dozens” of offers to reimburse him for walking out. He’s turned them down, and hasn’t yet calculated his expenses.
The Oregon Capital Bureau inspected campaign spending reports for all 11 senators, and found no instances of them charging walkout expenses to the campaign.
Two GoFundMe accounts were set up to assist the senators with expenses. One — “Encourage the Walking Senators” — received nearly $40,000. The other got $950. However, lawmakers accepting that money might violate state laws, Brecht said, and so the money wasn’t touched. The main fund account posted an update July 5 saying it stopped taking donations and instead directs donors to a website still taking donations. The donations would go toward opposing legislation similar to House Bill 2020, the environmental policy Senate Republicans walked out over.
The GoFundMe page said the money was to be transferred to a political action committee registered with the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office. The Stand With Our Senators PAC also has about $40,000 in it, though it’s not clear if it’s the same money. The names in the GoFundMe donations and the PAC’s donations do not match up. The GoFundMe received more than 700 contributions, mostly small and by individuals. The PAC as of Friday afternoon had 70 contributions and is largely funded by industry and a $5,000 donation from former representative Knute Buehler.
Attempts to reach the GoFundMe creator, Carol Williams of Silverton, and the PAC’s treasurer, Lori Piercy of Rainier, were unsuccessful.
In addition to the travel expenses, Senate Republicans are also potentially facing the daily fines.
The Oregon constitution allows fewer than a quorum to “compel” the other members to return, but doesn’t explicitly mention fines.
A legislative procedural guide says members can “inflict such censure or pecuniary penalty as may be deemed just” when a member is absent during the session and “a sufficient excuse is not rendered.”
Baertschiger questioned the legality of imposing fines. He said outside attorneys have been hired to look into it.
“I have a feeling this is going to get complicated,” Baertschiger said.
There was talk about the fines being deducted from senators’ pay.
“The fines shall be collected by forfeiture of any sum that becomes due and payable to the absent member, including salary and per diem,” Burdick said on the Senate floor June 20.
But now Senate Democrat leaders have said they will send invoices.
Bentz said if he ever gets a bill, he will decide what to do. Olsen said if he gets one, he’s not paying it.
Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.
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