SALEM — Senate Republicans ended a weeklong walkout Monday and returned to the Oregon Capitol after Democratic leadership agreed to major concessions on some of the most high-profile bills this session.
Democrats scrapped bills on gun control and vaccines in exchange for Republicans’ return to the Senate and their agreement not to pull a similar maneuver in the future.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, a chief co-sponsor of the bill that would have closed loopholes in Oregon’s vaccination mandates, said the Senate deal was bad news for public health.
“This bill was about saving lives, protecting children and ensuring our shared immunity from dangerous and preventable diseases,” Helt said Monday. “It’s disappointing that once again the loudest, most extreme voices in our politics prevailed and the sensible-center and thoughtful policy-making lost.”
Three Republicans returned to the Senate on Monday afternoon, one more than what’s needed to formally conduct business. The chamber was able to approve by an 18-11 vote a $1 billion-per-year school funding tax.
It previously passed the House and now heads to Gov. Kate Brown for her signature. It would raise $1 billion per year through a half-a-percent tax on Oregon’s wealthiest businesses via a 0.057% tax on gross receipts for businesses with $1 million or more in sales.
The agreement to move forward with the education tax vote marks a huge win for the Republican minority, which has remained largely powerless this session against a Democratic governor and legislative supermajority.
The vaccine measure, which was already approved by the House, would have ended families’ ability to opt-out of school vaccination requirements for personal, philosophical or religious reasons. If passed, Oregon would have had one of the strongest vaccine laws in the country at a time when the national measles count has hit its highest in decades.
Democrats also agreed to squash a gun control package that would have allowed businesses to raise the purchasing age to 21 and require gun owners to safely store their weapons. Both bills drew considerable opposition from a vocal Republican minority.
Senate Republicans walked out May 6 to delay a vote on the multibillion-dollar school funding tax. They said they refused to vote on any new funding for education without a solution to the state’s increasing public pension debt.
The protest occurred the week of a massive statewide teacher walkout over classroom funding. Oregon pays far less per student compared to other states despite the fact that school funding takes up the largest portion of the state budget.
Education has been a major budgetary and legislative priority for Democrats this session.
Opponents said the tax will be passed onto consumers and that the state shouldn’t increase funding without first addressing Oregon’s spiraling pension debt.
“No doubt we need the money,” said Cliff Bentz, a Republican from Eastern Oregon. “This bill is the wrong way to raise it.”
Legislative leaders unveiled a pension plan last week that would shield employers from the impact of upcoming interest rate hikes, though it garnered significant opposition from unions.
Educators cheered the funding boost, which they say is sorely needed to combat years of cuts that have forced schools to slash staff and programs like arts, music and PE.
“Many of us in Oregon have spent our entire adult lives waiting for the day we would fix our broken school funding model,” Jim Green, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, in a statement. “That day is now on the horizon.”
The backroom deal that lead to the funding package vote was a strange ending for one of the most high-profile pieces of legislation in recent years. The vaccination bill was the subject of two contentious hearings in legislative committees.
Opponents of the bill held a march in cities across the state, then rallied on the steps of the Capitol.
Helt carried the bill on the floor of the House, presenting the case for its passage.
“Dangerous diseases can and will return without a common commitment to vaccinations … and public policies to protect the common good of public health,” Helt said on the floor. “It’s already happening. The World Health Organization has declared vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 threats to global health.”
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, opposed the bill and spoke at the April 23 rally at the Capitol against the legislation.
“When the government can send you a mandate that you have a medical procedure that you do not want, there is no freedom in America,” Knopp told the crowd, according to the Salem Statesman Journal.
— Bulletin reporter Gary A. Warner contributed to this report.