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Measure 113 aimed at deterring Oregon legislative walkouts

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By PETER WONG
Oregon Capital Bureau

Oregon voters will decide in Measure 113 whether lawmakers should be barred from seeking re-election if they have 10 or more unexcused absences during a session.

The proposed constitutional amendment has no opposing statements filed in the state voters pamphlet.

The measure is intended to deter walkouts like those by Republicans in the past three years. But it could come back to hurt Democrats the next time their party is in the minority in the Oregon House or Senate.

Unlike in many state legislative chambers or the U.S. Congress, where only simple majorities are required to conduct any business, the Oregon Constitution sets the presence of a two-thirds majority — 40 of 60 in the House and 20 of 30 in the Senate — for either chamber to reach a quorum.

The two-thirds requirement holds even though simple majorities of both chambers can call themselves into a special session, which is usually done by the governor. It’s been invoked only twice since voters approved that authority in 1976.

A coalition led by public employee unions, which normally side with Democrats, settled on this measure and qualified it by petition for the Nov. 8 ballot. One of the alternatives would have set the quorum at a simple majority in each chamber.

Supporters say this measure is easier to explain to voters than proposing a change in the quorum.

“If I didn’t show up to work, or if I made it impossible for other people to do their jobs, I would lose my job,” Andrea Kennedy-Smith, a welfare worker from McMinnville, said last year when she as a chief petitioner launched the petition drive.

The measure applies to “floor sessions,” when the full House and Senate meet to consider bills and other actions. It does not apply to committee hearings or meetings. House and Senate rules can define what is an “unexcused absence,” which now is determined by the House speaker or Senate president after a member files paperwork with the chamber staff.

The ban on seeking re-election applies only to the next available election held every every two years. (Senators serve four-year terms.)

Recent GOP walkouts

Though there were notable walkouts by Senate Democrats in 1971 and House Democrats in 2001, the political impetus for Measure 113 resulted from walkouts by Republicans in 2019, 2020, and briefly, 2021.

Senate Republicans walked out in 2019 to stall a vote on a proposed corporate activity tax, process from which are earmarked for targeted school improvements. The vote went ahead after majority Democrats shelved some of their other legislative priorities for the session — among them were requirements for gun storage and a tightening of exemptions from vaccinations — and the Student Success Act passed despite Republican opposition.

Senate Republicans walked out in 2019, and Senate and House Republicans did so in 2020, to stall votes on proposed climate-change legislation. Senate Republicans returned in 2019 after Democrats announced they did not have to votes to pass it. But in 2020, the walkouts in both chambers prompted Democrats to shut down that session a few days before the deadline — and blocked action on a host of bills, not just climate change, plus end-of-session changes to the state budget. Democratic Gov. Kate Brown then issued an executive order for the Environmental Quality Commission to come up with a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The commission did so in December 2021, though opponents have sued in the Oregon Court of Appeals on grounds that the plan requires legislation.

Senate Republicans walked out again in 2021, but only for a single day — and it was in protest of some of Brown’s executive orders during the coronavirus pandemic. House Republicans did not, because House rules adopted by the majority Democrats at the start of the session imposed daily fines of $500 for unexcused absences by members.

Democrats in the past

Democratic legislators have used the walkout to thwart proposed actions they opposed, but not as recently or as often as Republicans.

House Democrats walked out for five days in 2001, when the Republican majority attempted to pass redistricting plans via resolution, which is not subject to a veto by the governor. Democrats returned after Senate leaders from both parties said they would have nothing to do with the House’s proposed action.

Both chambers, then controlled by Republicans, passed redistricting plans in regular bills that were vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The Supreme Court ruled later in the year, when it largely upheld a legislative redistricting plan drawn up by Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, that legislators could not enact a redistricting plan via resolution, only through the normal process of legislation.

Lawmakers had done so back in 1981, when they approved a congressional redistricting that resulted in Oregon’s fifth seat in the U.S. House and a legislative redistricting that resulted in one Senate district going without a senator for two years. (The Supreme Court ordered the secretary of state to correct that omission, and voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1986 to prevent it from happening again.)

In 1971, during a fight over whether 18-year-olds should be allowed to vote in state elections, Senate Democrats walked out to block an attempt to undo the legislation. They hid at the home of a senator from Salem.

Advocates seized their chance to pass the bill when the Senate president became acting governor in the absence of Tom McCall, who was out of state, and could not preside over the Senate. (The line of succession changed in 1972 — the secretary of state is now next in line — and the governor remains governor during out-of-state travels.)

The Senate president was one of two Democrats who joined 14 Republicans in what became the most recent coalition to run the Senate. The coalition lasted from 1957 through 1972.

The legislation eventually passed the Republican controlled House, just before ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which set the national voting age at 18 and settled the issue.

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