SALEM — There aren’t many Republicans in the Oregon Senate, but on Tuesday, there weren’t any at all.
The minority caucus was spread around the state, some in Salem and others in their hometowns, in an act of solidarity to deny the chamber a quorum to delay the passage of a bill to raise $2 billion per biennium in new taxes for public education. The bill was the lone item being voted on.
It’s the biggest vote for the Senate so far this year, and the Republicans successfully stalled it.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, entered the chamber at 10:59 a.m. A minute later, he called the Senate to order. The 18 Democrats trickled in, knowing full well what was about to happen.
“We’re not going to do much today,” said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.
Republicans had shown their hand the day prior, telling reporters of the walkout.
“Republicans are taking this dramatic stance because is the only tool we have, being in the super minority, to draw attention to the injustices of this type of legislation,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, said Monday afternoon.
The disappearance of the Republicans came just a day before teachers across the state planned to walk out of class and stage rallies to press for more money for schools.
“I’m really appalled at that,” Baertschiger said. “To try to time (the vote) for a protest is absurd.”
A group walkout by lawmakers is rare, but it has happened before. In 2001, House Democrats vacated the building to protest a Republican plan to circumvent Gov. John Kitzhaber in a redistricting effort. Democrats went into hiding June 26 and returned July 1, victorious. Republicans hired process servers to summon the missing lawmakers, but they weren’t successful.
But that was at the end of session, when time was of the essence. With two months left in the 2019 session, it’s not clear how much leverage Republicans can gain. The tax bill will still be there, whether they return Wednesday or next week.
Courtney could have state troopers search for the lawmakers. His office hasn’t said whether that’s being considered. Three senators — Jackie Winters, R-Salem; Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River; and Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer — were excused for illnesses.
Some, like Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, had already made his way across the state. Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, testified on a bill in the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon, but wasn’t in the Senate about an hour later.
But Democrats still went through as many motions Tuesday.
“Let’s do this,” Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, said, prompting giggles from her colleagues.
It was a light-hearted moment, but Courtney didn’t seem to see the fun in it. He often rubbed his brow and frowned, though that’s not unusual for the longtime lawmaker. And while some laughed at the tactic, it will have real impact.
Last week, the House passed House Bill 3427, which will tax businesses on sales over $1 million to pay for education reforms, including smaller class sizes, more spending on early education and career and technical education. Republicans in the House slowed the process, extending the hearing to six and a half hours, but in the end the measure got the three-fifths majority it needed on a party-line vote.
In the Senate, where the margins are slimmer, Democrats appear to have the necessary 18 votes, meaning the walkout was the only way to block passage.
Republicans argue that the new tax money might not all go to education as promised, suggesting some would be needed to subsidize the state’s public employee pension fund.
“The bill and the revenue it creates is not dedicated to schools… The only way to dedicate revenue is by a constitutional amendment, and we don’t have one,” Baertschiger said. “The Legislature can absolutely change what this money is used for in the future.”
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, one of the tax plan’s architects, called that criticism “a red herring.”
“There’s a cast-iron firewall around this fund. One hundred percent of it goes to education, in those three buckets that are clearly delineated in the bill, and none of it’s going to PERS. None of it’s going to remodel offices,” Hass said.
He conceded, “The Legislature could change the law. But in the years I’ve been here, these funds are usually pretty sacrosanct, and I think that’s what will occur here. You know, if there’s a giant earthquake, who knows? But you could say that about any one of the dedicated funds that we have here.”
As lawmakers gabbed Tuesday morning, a gaggle of spectators and journalists formed, lining the chamber. They took photos of the empty desks, adorned with large signs reading “REAL PERS REFORM NOW.”
A few minutes into the session, Courtney did a “call of the Senate,” prompting state police to sweep the building in search of a conservative straggler. Sixteen minutes in, none had been found, and Courtney canceled the call. He put the floor session on recess for about three hours, hoping by then the Senate will have the 20 members needed to conduct business.
When the Senate reconvened at 2:30, it was again a meeting of the Democratic caucus.
Senate Republican spokeswoman Kate Gillem said she isn’t sure what will happen Wednesday. Negotiations are ongoing, she said.
The school children filling the second-floor gallery left. The day’s honorary pages, Linus O’Brien, 13, and Sean Miller, 15, put down their flags. They traveled from Albany and Keizer, respectively, to perform the color guard ceremony. Both said they applied because they wanted to get more acquainted with the inner workings of government.