Erik Lukens
The Bulletin

W hen it comes to taxation, the Democrats who run the Oregon Senate are nothing if not willing and able. Inspired, perhaps, by this session’s passage of a business-activity tax, they’ve decided to enact a political-activity tax as well. It would be levied on the 11 Republicans who staged a walkout last month to block a controversial and costly climate bill.

The 11 Republicans, including Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, left Salem on June 19 in order to stall House Bill 2020, which would have increased the cost of many goods and services in the process of capping carbon emissions. It was, in effect, an energy tax, and the prospect of paying much more at the pump alarmed many people in wide open rural Oregon and in industries, such as logging, that rely upon trucking. Without Knopp and his 10 colleagues, the Senate lacked the quorum needed to conduct most business. The bill eventually died.

The state’s Democratic leaders cleverly presented the boycott as a refusal to work. Thus did Gov. Kate Brown claim that the missing 11 had “decided to abandon their duty to serve their constituents and walk out” and demand that they “return and do the jobs they were elected to do.” Never mind that by acting to block an enormous tax hike these rural senators may, in fact, have done exactly what their constituents elected them to do and, thus, served them quite effectively.

Such, no doubt, was the reasoning of 25 House Democrats who staged a walkout in 2001 in order to stall a redistricting plan supported by the Republicans who then controlled the chamber. At no time during their five-day absence did those Democratic representatives chastise themselves, at least publicly, for failing to do their jobs or for abandoning their duty to their constituents. Even Brown, then the Senate Democratic leader, called the walkout “very appropriate under the circumstances.”

Oregonians should not be surprised that Democrats now decry a political tactic they employed successfully 18 years ago. Nor should they be surprised that Republicans have turned the tables. That’s politics. You use the tools at your disposal to represent your constituents and to achieve your policy ends. And when the tools are used against you, you say unflattering things about your opponents (“they’re shirkers!”) in the hope that they’ll pay a political price.

What’s troubling, rather, is the attempt by Senate leaders to tax Republican colleagues for engaging in political activity — political activity, to boot, that even the governor once cheered. Initially, Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said she’d try to dock the pay of each member of the walkout caucus by $500 per day. The fines, she said, “shall be collected by forfeiture of any sum that becomes due and payable to the absent member, including salary and per diem.”

Translation: If they’re not doing their jobs, they won’t be paid.

The plan to dock pay ultimately was discarded in favor of one to issue $3,500 invoices to each of the Republicans who participated in the boycott. The sum represents $500 per day for seven of the eight days Republicans were absent. To drive home the argument that the penalty is for shirking, Carol McAlice Currie, a spokeswoman for Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, explained that “individual bills will be sent to each senator who missed work.”

The possibility of fining legislators for boycotting was discussed in 2001, as well. The sanction bandied about most frequently was a $50 charge per absent Democrat to account for the cost of trying to serve them summonses. Taxing Democrats for engaging in politics — in other words, for doing their jobs — would have been just as inappropriate then as taxing Republicans for doing their jobs is now.

It’s not clear that Courtney and company intend to follow through on their threats. Knopp had not received an invoice as of Wednesday. And Courtney’s office refused to answer any questions about the invoices he promised to send. Burdick’s office did not reply to a request for comment. Speaking of shirking ...

Here’s hoping Courtney and his crew let the matter drop. The $3,500 tax is a disingenuous act of pique that will backfire in the very places the taxed senators represent. The shirking argument may play well in Portland and elsewhere in urban Oregon. But the constituents of the 11 Republicans who boycotted know that it’s untrue. Because they know this, they won’t miss the real message of the Democrats’ political-activity tax: Not only are urban lawmakers willing to seek legislation that would hurt rural Oregonians, but they’re willing to pick the pockets of rural representatives who oppose that legislation effectively.

— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.