SALEM — More than two months after voting to fine protesting Republican senators $500 per day for walking off the job, Senate Democrat leaders announced Friday they will not make good on the threat.
Instead, leaders said they are pursuing a constitutional amendment to change Oregon’s quorum requirement from two-thirds to a simple majority. That would allow the Senate to convene with 16 instead of 20 senators out of the body of 30. Forty-six states use the simple majority requirement, according to a Senate Democrat news release.
Twice during the 2019 Legislature, Republicans brought the Senate to a halt by walking out in protest.
They were able to claim political victories both times.
During the first walkout, Gov. Kate Brown killed bills regulating guns and vaccinations to bring them back, and during the second walkout, Democrats announced they would no longer pursue a controversial carbon pricing bill, though they said that died because they didn’t have the votes within their own party.
To date, Senate Democrats haven’t imposed any punishment on their peers for walking from the Capitol.
“Stopping the work of the people by denying a quorum is unconscionable and undemocratic. Senate Democrats will work to protect Oregon’s democracy by giving Oregonians and their representatives more tools to stop any future quorum denials,” Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said in a statement. “I hope our Republican colleagues now see that this is not a tactic that should ever be used again, and that they will work with us to prevent either party from walking off the job.”
Burdick’s statement comes after the Senate Majority and Senate President’s offices were peppered by reporters asking if they were going to issue fines. Throughout the past two months, the Oregon Capital Bureau asked several times about the fines, and each time was told that they were going to be issued.
The issue was brought back to the foreground this week when a coalition of unions and liberal groups escalated the kerfuffle after noticing a political action committee set up to help pay for the absent lawmakers’ expenses while gone out of state has donated to each Republican senator.
The group has updated its state elections complaint against the 11 Republican senators, contending it’s unlawful to use campaign donations to pay for their political exodus.
Patty Wentz, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said the complaint still stands.
The only senator who’s paid his $3,500 fine is Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas. He did so to establish grounds to sue Senate President Peter Courtney in federal court, claiming he has no authority to issue such fines. Boquist’s check has not been cashed.
Rick Osborn, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, said the retreat from the fines was not because the caucus believed it could be on shaky legal ground in issuing the fines. Rather, it was to save taxpayers from funding a legal fight.
Senate Democrats said that “imposing the fines would have been bogged down by lengthy litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded legal fees.”