Oregon lawmakers have only a little more than two weeks until the state constitution requires their adjournment and, still, the Senate remains in a stalemate without any real signs of avoiding the session's collapse. The legislature is now in its sixth week of the standoff without a quorum in the Senate to conduct business, the longest boycott of proceedings in state history. If a deal cannot be struck soon, hundreds of bills will die as the session's clock ticks down.
Throughout much of the Senate walkout, legislative leaders seemed to communicate through jarring press releases staking their positions and blaming the other side for the stalled session. Some signs of hope for the session getting back on track emerged this week, with a tempering of statements and slight changes in rhetoric, indicating the parties could be working to see if an agreement can be reached. Meanwhile, legislative leaders are beginning to prepare contingencies in the event the session stays in a ditch. Legislators were briefed on potential timelines for a summer special session, likely in late June, and were asked to provide feedback on bipartisan measures that could find their way into a highly negotiated session.
Usually, the larger arch of the last two weeks of a session is fairly predictable. The budget, tax, and rules committees shore up their final bills for the session and lawmakers spend long hours voting them on the floor. Other than some bills falling by the wayside, despite stakeholders believing they are on a glide path, surprises rarely come up during the final days of the session. In this session, however, all that remains is uncertainty. Will the Senate reconvene before time runs out? What kind of deals will be struck to make that happen and, more importantly, how does that influence the bills that make their way across the finish line? In these uncertain times, anything and nothing is possible. The session could very well end with a bang or a whimper.
Unionized State Employees Threaten Strike
The state and its largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 503, are in the final weeks of their contract negotiations and, according to reports from the union, the two sides could not be further apart. Among the collective bargaining items is a cost of living adjustment for the union's members. The union wants an 11 percent adjustment in the first year and a nine percent adjustment in the second year, while the state is only willing to offer 4.4 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, drawing a deep division at the negotiation table. The contract has until the end of the month to reach an agreement. If an agreement cannot be reached in time, the union appears ready to strike.
The timing of the potential strike is notable because of the overlap with the legislative session and the potential ramifications of the Senate walkout. If the Senate does not return to regular business before constitutional sine die one June 25 and the state does not have an operating budget for the next biennium, state agencies may need to furlough or lay off employees to remain within the fiscal constraints of the continuing resolution. In that scenario, the state's public employee unions could see a hit to their operating budgets from a loss in membership dues. If the union strikes, however, those furloughs might not be necessary and buy time for the state to enact a budget during a special session.
Like much of this session, there is a lot of theater.
What We're Reading This Week
- The New York Times sent a reporter and photographer to document the historic, six-week walkout in the legislature, noting the state’s tradition of bipartisan collaboration seems to be fading.
- While there remains some hope for the Senate to regain life, Oregon Public Broadcasting published an article about how some legislators have written off efforts for this session and are already starting to look to 2024.
- Federal law enforcement agencies are convening a grand jury to meet later this month to investigate the scandal that led to former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s resignation.
- The Oregon Editorial Board blames both parties for letting the Senate walkout get this far and jeopardizing months of work on bills seeking to better the state.
- On Tuesday, Democratic legislators staged a rally on the steps to the Capitol, criticizing Republicans for all the bills that would fall by the wayside if absent senators do not return to complete the session.
- The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 is doubling down on its efforts to recall House Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Holvey (D-Eugene), despite efforts from Democratic legislators to stop the campaign.
- Sen. Jeff Golden (D-Ashland) writes a guest opinion in The Oregonian, making his pitch for the legislature to withhold the state’s historic personal income tax refund and use those funds for wildfire spending.
- U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D) also writes a guest opinion in The Oregonian arguing Republicans should return to the Senate to make sure a legislative tax incentives proposal passes the finish line.