Senate, House go dark as 2020 session shuts down in burst of acrimony

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney speak to reporters on Thursday in the Capitol as they closed down the Legislature over missing Republicans. (Sam Stites/Oregon Capital Bureau)

SALEM — In an extraordinary move, Democratic legislators on Thursday effectively ended the contentious and gridlocked 2020 Legislature, killing key legislation and taking with it the hotly debated climate change legislation that Republicans fought. 

It was an abrupt conclusion to a session trademarked by stalemate and bitter partisan divisions.

And it blows apart more than $600 million pending to pay for everything from fighting wildfires to preventing child abuse.

Republicans in the House and Senate have been boycotting the legislature for more than a week to avoid voting on a proposal meant to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Their absence meant the House and Senate didn’t have the legal quorum to transact business, which stopped action on legislation. 

Now, Gov. Kate Brown has declared her intention to go around the stubborn Republicans and use her executive powers to advance the climate plan without them, though she held close what specifically that would look like. 

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and his counterpart in the House, Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, each announced the session’s end on the floor of their respective chambers. No one could recall a legislative session ending with virtually nothing approved. 

Kotek, typically cool even when prodded by reporters, was visibly angry as she spoke from the dais. 

“We have been held hostage by a small group of elected representatives,” Kotek said. “We have been open to compromise and negotiation from the beginning, but unfortunately, their actions turn this into a hostage situation, not a negotiation. When the only thing you want to make a deal on is the one thing the majority won’t’ give you, you are not negotiating, you’re blackmailing. 

Republicans had offered to come back on Sunday, with hours remaining in the session, to pass budget bills. 

That was met with excoriation from Kotek, who said they behaved like a team walking off the second half of a basketball game and offering to return in the last minute on the condition they could determine the final score.

After she concluded her potent speech, state representatives attending the final gathering of the session erupted into applause. 

Courtney, never one to hide his feelings, was characteristically blunt.

“This is a failed short session,” said Courtney. “I cannot believe that. It’s a failed short session because 11 elected officials who are state senators would not come do their job.” 

Courtney’s remarks were part eulogy for what he views as the damaged institution of the Oregon Legislature, saying that it has been harmed by repeated walkouts by Republicans.

Courtney recalled arriving in Oregon in 1969 as a young lawyer, clerking at the Oregon Court of Appeals with five dollars in his pocket. He remembered the awe he felt, half a century ago, in the Senate where he has managed to become Oregon’s longest-serving Senate president. 

“And for some reason I was drawn to this building and I got up… And I walked across that gallery and I looked down here, all by myself,” Courtney said. “I said, ‘That’s the most gorgeous chamber I’ve ever seen.’ And I looked at the murals, and I said, ‘What is this state?’ 

The moment also prompted Kotek to look into the past, at her first opening day of a session as speaker in 2013. 

“I said at that time that it’s a critical time for our state’s democratic institutions because the people’s faith in elected leaders was strained, and faith in government, even more so,” Kotek said. “On that January morning seven years ago, I could never have imagined how much more our democratic institutions would be tested as Americans, as Oregonians. Big questions are looming. Can our democracy keep the people’s faith? Can elected leaders respect their oaths of office and the rule of law that allows us to get things done?” 

Now, Oregonians from one side of the state to the other won’t receive money that would have been appropriated from the Legislature. 

There will be no $120 million to provide more shelter and affordable housing for the 10,000 Oregonians struggling with homelessness, no $78 million to cover costs at the troubled state forestry department and start new projects to mitigate wildfire. There will be no $50 million for local parole and probation offices, centers for abused kids, and additional judges for Deschutes and Douglas counties. 

Republicans agreed some of the spending was vital. 

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan in a video posted to Twitter noted that Courtney and Kotek identified spending that was “most critical to pass” and that Republicans reviewed that list. 

“We agree,” Drazan said in the video.

Courtney and Kotek say they want a special session to get critical legislation done. Courtney said that wouldn’t happen for at least 30 days, and if it does, legislators have $1 billion in general fund dollars to make the adjustments they weren’t able to complete during this session.

“Some bills can wait till next session,” Kotek told reporters on Thursday. “Some will have to get done in a special session. And we definitely have to get back to the budgets. So we are committed to transparency and process,” which she said was not possible given the timelines that Republicans suggested by coming back on Sunday.

With the Legislature now functionally over, lawmakers have a modest pot of money to use for the state’s most urgent needs – approximately $75 million in an emergency reserve fund.

The Emergency Board, a panel of legislators empowered to distribute money when the Legislature isn’t in session, will distribute that money. 

Kotek and Courtney said they would convene the board Monday, March 9. That’s how lawmakers plan to allocate $12 million to help victims of recent flooding in the Umatilla Basin.

Under Oregon law, the legislature can call itself into special session when a majority of members in each chamber “has cause to believe an emergency exists.”

Brown said she was open to summoning legislators back to town but only if leaders brought her “a plan for a functioning session.” 

“I am open to calling a special session if we can ensure it will benefit Oregonians,” Brown said in a written statement. “However, until legislative leaders bring me a plan for a functioning session I’m not going to waste taxpayer dollars on calling them back to the State Capitol.

On Thursday morning, Democrats had rejected a bid by Republicans to return to the Capitol on Sunday to deal with only some legislation.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to come back and do a handful of bills and do them so poorly and have no public process just because the Republicans have dictated the terms of the return,” Kotek said. 

Under the state’s constitution, lawmakers must officially adjourn by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, March 8.

Brown is now exploring using executive power to enact limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

“I have always been clear that a legislative solution was my preferred path to tackle the impacts of climate change for the resources it would bring to our rural communities and the flexibility it would provide for our businesses,” Brown said in a written statement Thursday. “However, I will not back down. In the coming days, I will be taking executive action to lower our greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Speaking to the press late Thursday morning, members of the legislature’s People of Color Caucus — including legislators from across the Willamette Valley — vented their frustration and anger over what is effectively the death of many bills aimed at helping Oregon’s citizens of color.  

Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, and Rep. Mark Meek, D-Oregon City, said they were offended that Republicans said they’d return to the Capitol Sunday to pass budgetary items while leaving other critical policies, many aimed at disadvantaged communities, to languish.

“The fact that someone chooses to cherry pick what we pass and what we don’t pass, that’s not democracy,” Sanchez said. “That’s not the way we work. We cannot continue this behavior. We cannot continue with this disrespect, in my opinion, to the people of the state of Oregon.” 

“This isn’t a game, folks,” added Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland. “This is governing, and the idea of constantly going back and forth in a game sort of setup is something we’ve got to get past.” 

Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate agreed that the session was a failure and also pointed to how Democrats staged a walkout in 2001. But they blamed Democrats for the dysfunctional environment and accused them of abusing their supermajorities and not compromising over the greenhouse gas reduction bill.

As Democratic leaders continued their press conference in the harshly lit press room in the bowels of the Capitol, Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr. spoke to reporters through video chat.

He didn’t say where he was, but a picture of ducks flying over a pond hung on the wall behind him.

Baertschiger said Republicans called for budget adjustments be approved earlier in the session in case of a walkout over the greenhouse gas reduction bill. He reiterated that all along that Republicans just wanted the bill referred to a vote.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “It’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Baertschiger was dismissive about an executive order from the governor’s office, saying such an act would prompt an immediate lawsuit. 

Environment group Renew Oregon has already filed ballot measures for an initiative with even more ambitious targets than what lawmakers had proposed. Baertschiger was confident that Oregonians would reject those. 

He said that he had many long conversations with Courtney and they had both sought to avoid a walkout and worried that the rancor of national politics was coming to Oregon.

“This denial of quorum, it scares me to death,” he said.

When asked if there was irony to his statement when he had participated in three walkouts, he said that Republicans had a duty to represent their constituents who opposed the greenhouse gas reduction legislation.

However, he said he hadn’t given much thought to reforming quorum requirements. He also said the Democrats’ wide majority, which gives them firm grip on lawmaking, had turned into “mob rule” that didn’t respect differing needs of rural and urban Oregon.

Drazan posted a video earlier in the day stating that with the greenhouse gas reduction bill dead, Republicans were willing to return to the Capitol to work on a list of priority bills.

Drazan said that denying quorum remains an important tool to ensure that the minority party’s voices are heard.

She blamed Democrats for abusing their majority, pointing to the greenhouse reduction bill wasn’t fully analyzed by staff and questions remained over its implementation and if it was legally a tax.

While she said she didn’t consider the session’s end a victory, she said her caucus would stand by its decision.

“When it comes down to it, we are going to live with it because that’s what leadership looks like,” she said.