Leadership Pulls the Ripcord, Adjourns Session

Leadership Pulls the Ripcord, Adjourns Session

The parliamentary clock was ticking as the legislature entered its final week of the session and the second week of the Republican boycott over the cap-and-trade measure. Oregon’s constitution requires bill introductions, notices, and final votes to occur on separate days unless a two-thirds majority of lawmakers waive the rule. In the waning days and hours of a session, the procedural rule becomes a bargaining chip for the minority as the legislature races to adjournment.

During the second walkout of the 2019 session, Democratic leadership ceded much control over the remaining bills to return Senate Republicans to the building and pass the biennial budget. The stakes have been fundamentally different for the current session, without the looming threat and leverage of state agencies not having their two-year spending plans. The politics of this session have been exclusively over the cap-and-trade measure and nothing else, creating a true all-or-nothing negotiation.

On Monday, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney announced they were drawing a line in the sand on the session negotiations. They said there would be no last-minute deals over a narrow set of bills to revive the legislature for a weekend marathon race to adjournment. If the Republicans returned to the building and remained unwilling to allow a vote on all the measures on the floor, Democratic leadership was willing to pull the ripcord on the session.

Republicans, appearing to call a bluff on those statements, sent letters to the presiding officers on Thursday saying their caucuses were willing to return to the capitol to vote on budget bills for a one-day session before the constitutional adjournment deadline on Sunday. The offer, if accepted, would have afforded Republicans complete control over the outcome of every measure hanging in the balance of the session because of the parliamentary rules.

In an extraordinary move on Thursday afternoon, Speaker Kotek and President Courtney announced the session was “functionally over” because the parties were not able to overcome the impasse. The abrupt end to the session means the legislature has, at least for now, abandoned efforts to adopt any meaningful legislation. The long list of issues remaining unresolved includes critical clarifications to the new business tax, a rebalancing of hundreds of millions of dollars in agency budgets, and dedications of unanticipated revenue to housing, emergency preparedness, and other important spending areas.  

The legislature is expected to convene its emergency board for a meeting on Monday to address immediate budget issues, such as funding for the response to the coronavirus and flood disaster relief for Northeast Oregon. The governor has indicated she will begin pursuing executive action on the cap-and-trade policy, setting the stage for a new political and, potentially, legal frontline in the debate. And, lastly, Democratic leadership is asking the governor to call the legislature into special session within the next 30 days for lawmakers to return to their remaining work.

It is too soon to tell which side will bear the responsibility for the legislature failing to complete the session. Democrats argue the walkout was a dereliction of constitutional duty and the democratic process. Meanwhile, Republicans contend their actions were distinctly aware of the constitution and democratic process, and only became necessary because the majority party was trying to circumvent major legislation from being referred to the voters. One way or another, the voters will be asked in the fall to settle the score.