Oregon Democrats float new proposal to change quorum laws as Senate Republican walkout drags on

In November, Oregon voters fed up with what had become an almost annual tradition of Republicans blocking bills from passing by leaving the state Capitol voted overwhelmingly to punish any lawmaker who skipped more than nine days of work. 

Measure 113, a constitutional amendment to bar lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from serving another term, passed with more than 68% of the vote statewide, winning a majority in all but two counties. Proponents thought it would end – or at least shorten – attempts by minority party lawmakers to shut down legislative action to block unwanted bills.

By all accounts, the effort failed. Ten conservative lawmakers – a third of the Senate – blew past their nine allowed absences in mid-May, and some have racked up more than 20, with the June 25th end of the legislative session looming.  At least one didn’t plan on running for re-election, and others bet on courts agreeing with their assessment that the voter-approved Measure 113 was unconstitutional. 

Now, a majority of legislative Democrats have a new plan. A bill that will be introduced Wednesday by state Reps. Khanh Pham of Portland and David Gomberg of Otis would ask voters to change the constitution once more, bringing Oregon in line with almost all other state legislatures that only require a simple majority of lawmakers to conduct business. 

“I think the voters were clear with Measure 113 that they didn’t want any more walkouts,” Pham told the Capital Chronicle. “They wanted legislators to do their job. Clearly, it’s not been having the intended impact that that people were hoping for, and so now we’re trying to make sure that voters will is being honored by actually getting to something that will hopefully get at the root cause and hopefully be more effective.” 

The measure addresses a quirk in Oregon’s constitution, left over from when the state’s founders copied about half the text from Indiana’s constitution in 1857. Indiana’s constitution contained an explicit ban on Black people living in the state, which appealed to Oregon’s founders, and it also required a two-thirds quorum in the House and Senate.

Only Indiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas require two-thirds of representatives or senators to be present to conduct business, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though the Vermont House and Wisconsin House and Senate require two-thirds and three-fifths quorums, respectively, to vote on any bill raising taxes.  Democrats in the minority in Oregon in 2001, Indiana in 2011 and Texas in 2003 and 2021 walked out to block votes on redistricting plans, anti-union legislation and election legislation, while Oregon Republicans have walked out five times since 2019. 

The possibility of Pham and Gomberg’s proposal passing this year is a long shot. While the two insisted in an interview late last week that they weren’t giving up on the legislative session, Senate Republicans have threatened to only return on the final day, dooming nearly all bills. The two sides have been involved in intense negotiations in recent days to end the stalemate.

And even if the walkout ends, the measure will be introduced just 11 days before the session’s constitutional deadline. That leaves little time for lawmakers to hold hearings and solicit public opinion, let alone vote on the proposal. 

“There’s a week left, but in legislative time that’s a lifetime,” Gomberg said. “Anything could happen in a week.” 

‘Ongoing conversation’

Pham, meanwhile, said she sees the measure as an opening salvo in a conversation that will continue over the next year. She intends to bring the issue back in the month-long 2024 legislative session if it doesn’t succeed this year. 

“If we want to be able to honor the will of voters, have our democracy actually functioning, we need to address this arcane requirement that is clearly not helping us meet this moment that we’re in,” she said. “I’m going to have to keep bringing it up, and this is just the start of an ongoing conversation.” 

The pair described themselves as a bit of an odd couple. Pham, 44, was a community organizer before she was elected to represent southeast Portland’s Jade District, with a large population of immigrants and other people of color. She’s one of the Legislature’s most progressive members.

Gomberg, 70, spent 35 years as a small business owner and represents a rural swing district along the central coast. He works frequently and closely with Republicans, including leading recent budgets dedicated to rural infrastructure. 

Gomberg said he understood the impulse to use any tools available to stop a bill from moving forward. As much as he disagrees with the Republican walkout and wishes it were over, he doesn’t blame Republicans for using their ability to shut down the session. 

“This is a larger question,” he said. “It’s a question about what tools should be available. Should you be able to stop the entire process because of your strong feelings about those one or two or three heartfelt issues? For me the answer to that is no.” 

As of Tuesday, 27 of 35 House Democrats and 14 of 17 Senate Democrats had signed on as co-sponsors of the measure. Top leaders in the House and Senate had not, but Pham said she had spoken with Speaker Dan Rayfield of Corvallis and Majority Leader Julie Fahey of Eugene and they supported introducing the bill. A spokeswoman for Fahey and House Democrats said Fahey supports having a conversation.

No Republicans have signed onto the measure, though Gomberg said some Republicans privately told him they supported the idea. 

Democratic leaders, unions defend Measure 113

As the Senate GOP walkout continued over the past month, Democratic leaders and union officials have been hesitant to say whether a new amendment for a simple majority was necessary. Instead, they insisted, Measure 113 needs time to play out. 

“We already gave the voters a chance to tell us what they want, and they want people to get to work,” Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, told the Capital Chronicle in an interview on May 7. 

On May 17, two weeks into the walkout, Gov. Tina Kotek told reporters that she didn’t support a new constitutional amendment for a simple majority quorum but that her opinion could change depending on how the walkout went. 

“I think Oregon voters were very clear they supported that approach,” she said, referring to the 10-day limit on unexcused absences. “We should see how that works, and if it’s not working to disincentivize this behavior, then we’ll have to go on to something else.”

The next day, once nine Republican senators and independent Sen. Brian Boquist had made themselves ineligible to serve another term, Senate President Rob Wagner insisted during a press conference that Measure 113 had indeed had an effect.

“They are making a choice to not come back to the Legislature, to not be able to file for re-election, and that is going to have a profound impact on people as they approach their future in legislative service and to the folks that are going to be returning to this next election cycle,” he said. “So in terms of not having an impact, I think it has a huge impact in terms of how people think about their public service.” 

And on May 24, nearly a week after the 10 senators became ineligible to serve another term, Melissa Unger, executive director of the union that represents state employees and a key force behind Measure 113, said the walkout didn’t prove the measure failed. Service Employees International Union Local 503, or SEIU Local 503, and other unions and groups aligned with Democrats in pushing Measure 113 and said it polled better than other possible solutions to the walkout problem.

“We do think that we’ll see what happens after Measure 113 actually has a full impact and people can’t run for reelection,” Unger said. “Because we do think that Oregonians were really clear that they wanted people to show up for their jobs.”

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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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.