A handful of Senate Republicans, in the fifth week of their walkout and facing the looming threat of hundreds of dollars in fines, found their way back to a cramped hearing room in the state Capitol on Thursday evening.
They joined a few House Republicans for a meeting of an unofficial legislative committee, intent on proving that there was a culture of corruption among Democrats who have controlled Oregon for decades. But when time came for public comment, people in the room stood up one after the other to tell Republicans to stop staging a tantrum over bills they don’t like and get back on the job.
Republicans had plenty of ammunition. Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan resigned less than a month prior over revelations that she worked a $10,000-a-month side job for a troubled cannabis company involved in an audit her office conducted. That same company, La Mota, and its owners were major donors to Democratic candidates and gave actual stacks of cash to Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek and Senate President Rob Wagner – a legal, but eyebrow-raising move.
Earlier this year, top employees of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission were implicated in setting aside rare, expensive bottles of bourbon for their own use – and helping secure liquor for as-yet-unnamed lawmakers, according to one of the executives. And the state Democratic Party is under scrutiny by the Department of Justice for failing to accurately report the source of a $500,000 campaign contribution.
Senate Republicans are sure more scandals exist. They set up a tipline run by the Senate GOP office and plan to continue meeting every couple of weeks to discuss government oversight.
Because they’re not an official legislative committee, they’re limited in what they can accomplish. They don’t have the power to introduce or vote on bills or to compel witnesses to show up. They can’t post agendas to the main legislative website, and, as they learned Thursday, the legislative media office doesn’t have to broadcast their hearings.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said the group still will try to exert oversight of state agencies: Republican lawmakers plan to file public records requests, which anyone can do.
“If you see something that is happening in an agency that is wrong and want to come to us, we will find an appropriate place for that accountability to happen,” Knopp said.
The group also includes House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, Sens. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City and Brian Boquist, I-Dallas and Reps. Greg Smith, R-Heppner and E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls. Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, is not on the committee but showed up Thursday to indicate his support.
There are six open spaces for House and Senate Democrats, and rules adopted by the Republicans call for caucus leaders to appoint Democratic members. Republicans sent Wagner and Rayfield a letter in April asking them to form an official oversight committee, then plunged ahead without them.
“This is about transparency and holding people accountable,” Knopp said before handing the meeting over to public testimony.
They heard first from Laurie Dougherty, a Salem resident who said voters provided accountability when they passed Measure 113 last year to disqualify senators who participate in walkouts from serving another term.
“I’m in Senator (Kim) Thatcher’s district and she is not representing me because she is not there doing her job,” Dougherty said.
Salem resident Ray Quisenberry implored the senators to return and vote against bills they didn’t like.
“If you don’t like a bill, then vote no, but please don’t just walk out, have a tantrum and put everything to a standstill,” he said. “If you don’t like the legislation, just vote no.”
Brian Ettling, a former seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park who drove in from Portland for the hearing, said he didn’t get to choose which parts of his job he did. During his 25 years at the park, Ettling said he saw climate change firsthand in a shrinking snowpack and increasingly intense fire seasons, which he cited as proof the Legislature needs to pass legislation and funding to address climate issues.
“Please don’t waste the legislative session just to have a tantrum here,” he said. “Do your job. Be adults. Put on your big boy pants. That’s why so many of us are here today, because we’re tired of the games that you’re playing.”
The comments continued, with 11 Oregonians – most from the area around the Capitol, but some who had driven in from as far as Tillamook County – calling on Republican senators to return. As Knopp ended the meeting with a vow to return and keep fighting against what he calls an “unlawful, uncompromising, unconstitutional agenda,” the crowd clapped and chanted “quorum.”
Senate Republicans will have their next chance to decide whether to grant a quorum and allow the Senate to resume passing bills at 10:30 a.m. Monday. Those who don’t return will face fines of $325 per day going forward.
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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.