SALEM — The impasse in the Oregon Legislature hit the one-week mark, with little progress for a resolution as the Sunday deadline to adjourn closes in.
The Senate tried and failed three times Wednesday to assemble a quorum. The 11 Republican senators who left Salem on June 19 to block a vote on a carbon-cap bill had not returned. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, announced Tuesday the bill was dead. But the Republicans say they aren’t ready to return.
In the House, a flurry of bills was passed Wednesday. They included $8 million in funding for the expansion of the Redmond campus of Central Oregon Community College, $10 million for Deschutes Water Basin piping irrigation, $250,000 for the High Desert Museum renovation and a $1 million program that could include the creation of a mental health crisis center in Bend.
On the downside, lawmakers did not fund a new circuit judge for Deschutes County, approving only one judge each for Marion and Jackson counties.
The Legislature’s budget also sets aside $300 million in unallocated bonds that could be used for university construction projects to be chosen in 2020. That is $75 million more than Gov. Kate Brown asked for and gives Oregon State University-Cascades a better chance at receiving $17 million in state funds for its proposed Student Success Center.
None of it matters if the Senate does not return by Sunday’s constitutional deadline for the Legislature to adjourn. The bills passed by the House were sent to the Senate with uncertainty over when — or even if — the chamber will meet by Sunday. If the senators do not return, policy bills would automatically die. The Legislature earlier approved a continuing resolution that would maintain budgets at current levels into mid-September, but specific projects proposed this session would have to start all over again as new legislation.
“This past year has been one for the books,” said Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond. “I started by winning my primary by two votes, and it’s ending up in the middle of a stalemate.”
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, said she was particularly perplexed by the decision of legislative leaders to deny Deschutes County a new circuit judge.
“The county has grown by 57,000 people since the last time we got a judge,” Helt said. “Deschutes County was number one on the governor’s priority list for new judges, and number one on the chief justice’s list.”
The bill with the judicial seat allocations is up for a vote Friday, but bills cannot be amended on the floor of the House and Senate. The House would have to vote to send the bill back to a committee, an unlikely move this late in the session.
What about a 2nd session?
Brown and Democratic leaders didn’t issue any statements on the standoff on Wednesday.
“Everything the governor has said still stands,” said Kate Kondayen, Brown’s deputy communications director. That includes the possibility of calling a special session beginning Tuesday if the Legislature does not finish work on the more than 100 bills stalled in the Senate.
Helt said the word around the Capitol was legislative leaders don’t want a special session until the impasse is resolved.
“Maybe September,” Helt said. That would be when continuing resolutions keeping government budgets at current levels expire.
Unless the Senate returns, the House has just five bills left to pass. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, canceled the planned Thursday session and adjourned the House until Friday morning. Zika and Helt said they were making quick trips home to see family.
Knopp: ‘We need some assurances’
The actions of Helt and Zika have less impact than their colleague, Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who isn’t even in the Capitol. He’s in Idaho, where he is out of reach of the Oregon State Police. Using her powers under the constitution, Brown ordered troopers to locate the missing senators and compel them to return to Salem. State police leaders have phoned lawmakers, but made no effort to confront them.
Reached by cellphone, Knopp said he was glad to hear Senate Democratic leaders had announced that there weren’t enough votes among Democrats to pass House Bill 2020, the carbon cap bill.
“But just saying it’s dead isn’t a guarantee,” Knopp said. “We need some assurances we won’t be dealing with this all over again in the next session.”
Knopp said Democratic leaders also have to drop the $500-per-day fines they levied against the absent Republicans. The total reached $2,500-per-senator on Wednesday. The Senate is scheduled to meet Thursday and Friday, which would add another $1,000 to the tab. Republican senators have said they will sue rather than pay the fines.
Senate Republicans have discussed other legislation they would like to revisit along with the carbon cap.
The $2 billion business tax for education that passed earlier in the session was also in need of review, Knopp suggested. “I think it can be fixed with some tweaks.”
Knopp said he was confident that if a deal can be struck by the weekend, senators could clear-out the backlog of bills in as little as two days.
“I think if a decision was made before Sunday to come back, we would have the opportunity to finish what needs to be done,” Knopp said. “They would be long days, but it can be done,”
And if there is no deal?
“I am doing OK,” Knopp said. “I think I can stay out here a little longer.”
The senator’s flight from Oregon has drawn widespread attention, including a story in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, a major German newspaper. Knopp has appeared on the political television program “Fox & Friends,” a favorite of President Donald Trump. HBO’s Vice News visited Knopp at his lakeside cabin hiding spot for a segment titled “Somewhere in Idaho.” Knopp said that if necessary, he was ready to move again — out of the country. “I do have my passport with me,” Knopp said.
Knopp said that the 11 Republicans will hold a conference call late Wednesday to get an update on any negotiations with Brown and Democratic legislative leaders. He said he hoped the caucus would stick together and make a group decision on when to return to Salem and under what conditions.
But Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that senators are not a monolithic group and that some may be more committed to staying out than others. Bentz said that was typical of the Senate, where all 30 members — Democrat and Republican — have an agenda and political strategy.
“They all view themselves as an island of rationality in a sea of madness,” Bentz said.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org