Oregon senators joining walkout will face fines for future unexcused absences

Oregon senators participating in the GOP-led walkout will need to decide Monday whether to return to floor sessions or face daily $325 fines.

The walkout has denied the Senate a quorum since May 3, halting votes on bills addressing housing, drug addiction, public education and other issues.

On Thursday, Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and other Democratic senators stepped up the pressure. After the roll call and sergeant-at-arms’ customary search for senators, Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, made a request: Senators should face a $325 fine for an unexcused absence for each day the Senate fails to reach a quorum. It starts Monday and is not retroactive.

Senators approved that step with a 16-2 vote, with the only two Republicans present, Sens. David Brock Smith of Port Orford and Dick Anderson of Lincoln City, opposed.

In a floor speech, Wagner implored the senators to return – and vote on bills. 

“Just like in the House, each of these bills deserve a vote on the Senate floor,” Wagner said. 

Republican senators are skipping floor sessions for a variety of stated reasons. First, they said the Senate failed to follow a law that requires bill summaries be written at  an eighth-grade reading level so the public can access that information. As the walkout progressed, Republican senators also said they want to kill or water down bills they strongly oppose, including House Bill 2002, which shores up abortion rights for minors under 15 without parental consent and access to transgender care.

“The people of Oregon do not want backroom deals,” Wagner said. “The people of Oregon don’t want kill lists.” 

Time is running short. The 160-day session must end by June 25, a little more than three weeks away. Republican senators have offered to return on the final day to pass budget bills, but Democratic senators have said this isn’t acceptable and fails to provide enough time to vet bills.

Senators voted to impose fines based upon a provision of the state constitution that allows the Senate to “compel” attendance to reach a two-thirds majority. The constitution doesn’t specify fines, but the Senate has issued them before in recent years. In 2019, the Oregon Senate Democratic leadership fined Republicans $500 a day – and $3,500 total – when they walked and prevented a vote on a greenhouse gas emissions bill. Later that year, Senate Democrats opted to drop the fines rather than collect them.

The $325-per-day fine is based on a senator’s salary, per diem and benefits for a day. Each day, senators are paid the equivalent of $253 a day during the session in salary and per diems to cover travel costs. Their annual salary is $35,052, or the equivalent of $96 for each calendar day. They also get a daily payment  of $157 during the session to cover food and lodging in Salem.

Senators also qualify for health insurance through the same plan available for state government and university employees. The Capital Chronicle reported earlier this week that senators who have participated in the walkout received more than $47,000  in pay and per diem for the days they kept the Senate from conducting business.

Wagner said he hopes the prospect of fines will help people as they contemplate whether to return on Monday.

“I’m also hopeful that this is something that spurs conversation over the weekend and that people are looking at this from a position of this is a job that I’m getting paid to do,” Wagner told reporters. 

But the impasse continues without signs of any changes. After fruitless meetings, even Gov. Tina Kotek has given up on efforts to broker a deal – unless she gets invited back to the table.

After the decision to impose fines emerged, Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, issued a statement that blasted Wagner and defended his fellow Republicans.

“Once again, he has retaliated against members who are exercising their right to peacefully protest his own unlawful, hyper-partisan actions,” Knopp said. “Senate Republicans don’t feel compelled to entertain his political theater. In fact, we suggest President Wagner pay our fines since it is his behavior that galvanized our protest.”

It’s uncertain when the two senators will talk again. They have a standing meeting to visit each Friday, Wagner said, but those usually get canceled.

Even so, Wagner said his door remains open.

“Hopefully, he’ll be here, and we always have doughnuts on Friday,” Wagner said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.