Randy Stapilus: Walkouts demand a constitutional solution

It’s time to acknowledge, after watching this year’s Oregon legislative session, that Plan B didn’t work So Oregon needs to try Plan A.

Both plans concern the same problem: Just over a third of the state’s legislators in the House or Senate can prevent that chamber from assembling a quorum, without which it can conduct no business.

In recent years, and at present, the minority keeping the state from doing its job has been of Republican affiliation. Further back in the past, that has been, and possibly at some point in the future could be again, Democratic.

Either way, there is no reason now to believe that any discontented group amounting to slightly more than a third of the seats of either legislative chamber has any incentive to allow the state’s business to proceed if it wants to block a proposal it opposes.

This happens because Article 4, Section 12 of the Oregon Constitution says, “Two thirds of each house shall constitute a quorum to do business, but a smaller number may meet; adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members.” That part about compelling hasn’t worked very well, leaving us repeatedly deadlocked.

The current setup is a recipe for destruction of a third of Oregon’s state government, since one party or the other will always be in the minority. The quorum-denying tactic now is being used so regularly — over simple differences of policy or philosophy — that it is eroding the ability of the state to operate.

An overwhelming majority of Oregon’s voters appear to see it that way.

Last November, after a string of quorum-killing walkouts in recent years, a group of petitioners offered Measure 113 in an effort to end the practice.

The measure amends the state constitution so that any legislator who racks up 10 or more unexcused absences in a session is disqualified from serving in the Legislature in the following term. And it won approval from 68.3% of voters.

Probably most of those voters, and apparently most political watchers around the state, thought the penalty would prove strong enough to end the walkouts. It didn’t, though, as Oregonians now know.

Ten senators, nine Republicans and one independent, stayed away more than 10 working days without excuse, thereby barring them from serving as legislators after their current term. That done, there was no more meaningful penalty to impose.

But the striking legislators were unbowed. They stayed out six weeks before finally agreeing to return for a string of frantic closing days.

That so many Republicans seemed willing to give up their seats was wholly unexpected. It provided clear evidence that Measure 113 had failed.

Adding insult to injury, virtually all of the walkers now say they plan to challenge the measure in court, in an attempt to continue seeking election to new terms.

The good news is that, all along, Measure 113 represented Plan B. Time has come now to take another crack at Plan A.

The simple way to solve the two-thirds quorum problem would be a constitutional amendment reducing the requirement to a majority. That would allow just over half of either chamber to conduct business.

It’s easy to understand. And it would clearly solve the problem.

It’s also been discussed before, of course, at length.

In 2019, amid another walkout, then-state Sen. Ginny Burdick promised to promote a constitutional amendment, subject to ratification by voters, to set the Legislature’s quorums for each body at a simple majority — 16 in the Senate, 31 in the House.

Such a resolution was introduced early in 2020. It progressed through a public hearing and work session, then seemed to run out of steam, dying in committee without reaching the Senate floor.

Another try was mounted this year by Reps. Khanh Pham of Portland and David Gomberg of Otis. Unfortunately, time ran out on them, among the crush of other business.

The idea is not radical.

Oregon is an outlier when it comes to the quorum numbers. Among the 50 states, only four — Oregon, Indiana, Tennessee and Texas — mandate two-thirds.

So, is it just coincidence that all four experienced troubled legislative sessions this year? Obviously not.

While the Legislature lost its last chance to take action this year on a quorum change referral, the same forces that developed the petition campaign for Measure 113 last year, and pushed through its approval, probably could. Or someone else could step forward.

Either way, if Oregonians expect to have their ballot-expressed will carried out at the statehouse, the next step should be clear.

Guest writer Randy Stapilus is a former reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering politics and government in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In addition to publishing books for himself and others through the Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com. He continues to write for print and online news publications as well, including the Salem-based Oregon Capital Chronicle, where this piece originally appeared, before being updated here. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com . 



Author is correct. These walkouts are unacceptable no matter the party. My state senator who was the most vocal during the walkout last year by threatening law enforcement needs to A) Not run again, and B) needs serious anger management.

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