Funding for child abuse assessments in Salem, easing the hiring of qualified nurses and behavioral health specialists, and resolving a backlog of patients needing care at Oregon State Hospital are falling victim to a walkout by Senate Republicans that has stalled the Legislature’s work for over a month.
Salem nonprofit leaders, educators and health care providers said possible adjournment without action is jeopardizing bipartisan policies needed to address critical issues facing the city and state.
Several told Salem Reporter they were frustrated that a month of negotiations among state senators has yet to produce an agreement to free up the legislative machinery.
“The fact that neither the Democrats in the majority or the Republicans in the minority can find a way to do the work that is so sorely needed not just in the health care sector but throughout Oregon is a disgrace,” said Tim Murphy, CEO of Bridgeway Recovery Services, in an email. “Both sides are claiming they are doing ‘What’s best for Oregon’ while neither side is doing anything at all.”
Nine Republican senators, including Sen. Kim Thatcher, a Keizer Republican whose district includes north Salem, and one independent have been largely absent from Senate floor sessions since May 3.
The walkout is intended to deny the Senate the 20-member quorum needed to conduct business. Republicans hold 12 of 30 Senate seats.
Republicans initially said they engaged in the walkout because Democrats weren’t following a rule requiring bill summaries be understandable by an eighth grader.
Then, Senate Republicans said they were objecting to several bills they deemed too partisan to pass, Oregon Capital Chronicle reported. Those include House Bill 2002, which allows minors of any age to receive an abortion without parental notification or consent, and expands access to transgender health care; and House Bill 2005, which raises to 21 the minimum age to purchase most firearms.
“I see them as being unconstitutional, unlawful, taking away parents rights and they’re deeply partisan and so that’s why I – it just was a step too far,” Thatcher said of the bills.
Both senators representing Salem – Thatcher and Democrat Deb Patterson – told Salem Reporter they’re still optimistic a deal can be reached which would allow the session to resume.
“There’s always gotta be a path forward, I really do believe that,” Patterson said.
She declined to say whether she had personally reached out to Thatcher to try to persuade her to return.
“I’m letting the negotiations happen with the leadership,” Patterson said.
State senators representing both parties came together Friday for “intense negotiations” intended to resume the session, Oregon Capital Chronicle reported.
In 2022, Oregon voters passed a measure which made legislators with 10 or more unexcused absences ineligible for re-election. Thatcher has now accumulated 21 unexcused absences, but said she anticipates the measure will be taken to court by Senate Republicans.
Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, on June 1 said legislators with unexcused absences would be fined $325 per day. Absent senators are still paid their base salary, $35,052 annually, plus $157 per diem while in session.
Thatcher in an interview did not specify the conditions that would bring her back to the Senate floor.
“(Democrats) don’t even want to follow their own rules as they’re written, so I’m doubting that they’re wanting to change the rules, but maybe they will come around, and that’s what I’m hopeful of,” she said.
Policies left to die
Republican leaders have previously said they’d be willing to return on the last day of the session to pass a state budget and bipartisan bills. If that fails, Gov. Tina Kotek can call a special session to pass a budget.
Much is at stake for Salem, including a $9 million request from Patterson to fund homeless services and shelters in Salem. Absent state help, city leaders say they must pursue a tax on Salem workers to continue funding those services.
Such state funding is typically included in the end-of-session “Christmas tree bill,” which lays out money for special projects and wishes from legislators, like the lottery bonds used to help build the Salem YMCA, money for Salem Police Department body cameras or state funds to aid in wildfire reconstruction projects.
Patterson said that complex legislation can’t be rushed into the final day of the session, as it typically takes longer to compile the final list of projects and draw up documents.
Services ordinarily included in the state budget are also stuck in limbo.
Counseling and assessments for hundreds of Salem kids who have suffered child abuse are in jeopardy with any delay in the budget, said Alison Kelley, CEO of Liberty House.
The nonprofit gets about 10% of its funding from the state through grants from the Oregon Department of Justice. A contract for roughly $500,000 per year expires June 30 and can’t be renewed without a state budget authorizing more funding.
“All of our good services are at risk right now and we have no control over it,” Kelley said. “We’re very scared about that. We have 50 employees. That’s 50 households that are depending on us.”
Bills that have passed the House with bipartisan support are also languishing awaiting Senate action, frustrating leaders who have worked sometimes for years to make them a reality.
That’s the case with a bill to let community colleges offer a bachelor’s of science in nursing, intended to address a critical shortage of nurses hitting Salem hospitals and clinics. The bill, SB 523, passed the House and Senate unanimously but needs another Senate vote to address minor technical changes.
“We’re extremely close to having this done and we’re probably going to have to do it all over again. It just kills me,” said Jessica Howard, Chemeketa Community College president.
Hopes of a deal
Salem’s Democratic representatives said they’re frustrated that a minority of senators are stalling work that’s been done in the House, while local Republican representatives stayed mum.
Rep. Kevin Mannix, Salem Republican, declined an interview to discuss the walkout.
“I’ll be happy to talk after session is over on June 25. You do autopsies on dead patients. The patient is not dead yet,” Mannix said in an email.
Rep. Tracy Cramer, a Gervais Republican whose district includes portions of northeast Salem, did not respond to a Salem Reporter request for an interview.
Rep. Tom Andersen, a Democrat who represents south Salem, called the walkout “childish behavior.”“They were elected to pass legislation and deal with issues that affect all Oregonians, and what they are doing is sabotaging Oregon. They’re holding our rights and our democracy hostage and undermining what is the Oregon way, which has really been bipartisan cooperation throughout the entire history,” he said.
Rep. Paul Evans, a Monmouth Democrat whose district includes portions of west and south Salem, said he is frustrated, angry and disappointed.
“I believe public service can be a noble calling. I call some of the folks that are currently engaged in this process on the other side friends. And I hope that they would expect of me what I expect of them, and that’s to do your duty,” he said.
Evans said Thursday he is leaving negotiations up to leaders, but has been discussing potential resolutions with colleagues on both sides that have left his heart heavy.
“Even if there is some kind of last-minute intervention today, in this session, the underlying mechanics are out of alignment. We are not rewarding compromise,” he said.
Ardeshir Tabrizian contributed reporting.
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