SALEM, Ore. – Oregon Senate Democrats plan to start fining their absent colleagues amid a month-long Republican walkout, a move they hope will pressure boycotting lawmakers to return to the chamber as hundreds of bills languish amid the partisan stalemate.
In a procedural move Thursday, Democrats voted to fine senators $325 every time their absence denies the chamber the two-thirds quorum it needs to conduct business. The amount reflects lawmakers’ average daily pay, according to the office of Democratic Senate President Rob Wagner.
“Oregonians work for a living every day, and they don’t get paid when they don’t show up,” Wagner said while addressing the Senate. “We have a huge stack of bills sitting right over there on that cart, just waiting for us to take them up, to debate and to vote.”
The month-long Republican walkout — the longest-ever in the Oregon Legislature — once again prevented the Senate from reaching a quorum on Thursday. But Democratic Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, citing an article in the state constitution, requested that the Senate compel absent members to attend and fine absentees $325 for every day a quorum isn't reached. Her request was voted on and approved by the other Democrats present on the Senate floor.
The article of the Oregon Constitution cited by Democrats states that even if two-thirds of members are not present, “a smaller number may meet ... and compel the attendance of absent members.”
Senate Republican Minority Leader Tim Knopp condemned the plan as retaliation.
Most Republican senators haven't shown up for floor sessions since May 3, denying quorum and stalling hundreds of bills, including ones on abortion, gender-affirming care and gun control that have sparked fierce debate in the Legislature.
Knopp has said Republicans will only return to the Senate on the last day of the legislative session, June 25, to pass the budget and “bipartisan” bills.
Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek said Wednesday that her talks to end the impasse have failed and that Knopp wants the bill on abortion and gender-affirming care to be “substantially amended or dead.”
Kotek said negotiating on that measure, which has already passed the House, is not an option.
After Republicans staged previous walkouts in 2019, 2020 and 2021, voters last November approved a ballot measure by an almost 70% margin that was supposed to stop walkouts. Lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences would be disqualified from reelection in the next term, according to the measure’s title and summary.
But the text of the measure says disqualification applies to “the term following the election after the member’s current term is completed.” Republicans are taking that as meaning that boycotters who are up for reelection in 2024 could be candidates, since their current terms end in January 2025 — with the disqualification coming for the 2028 election.
Secretary of State spokesperson Ben Morris said the department is seeking a legal opinion from the Oregon Department of Justice and will follow its advice. The Justice Department is currently working on the legal opinion, Roy Kaufmann, spokesperson for Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, said in an email Wednesday.
Republican senators are expected to file court challenges if the secretary of state’s elections division bars them from registering as candidates in September.