Image for 2020 Session Opens Under Shadow of a Potential GOP Walkout

The 2020 Oregon legislative session convenes today, but it isn’t certain what will happen when it does as both Senate and House Republicans have shown signs they will walk out to block passage of another Democratic attempt at a cap-and-trade measure.

“It’s just ungodly how many bills and what type of bills are being proposed for a 35-day session,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. was quoted as saying by OPB. “To try to do climate change policy in 35 days when it should be done over five or six months. It’s a crying shame.”

There also are signs some lawmakers have grown weary of annual sessions and may try to end them. And Senate President Peter Courtney is expected to miss at least the first day of the session as he continues to recoup from a hip injury.

In addition to cap-and-trade issues, controversial issues abound – foster care, public records, gun control measures, a declaration of a statewide homeless emergency, increased funding for mental health services, more investment in emergency preparedness and a handful of new taxes.

Democrats hold super-majorities in both the House and Senate, which is why Republicans in both chambers view their only leverage as walking out to deny them a quorum to hold floor sessions. In a constitutionally limited 35-day session, lost session days can constrict what legislation can be considered and passed.

Governor Brown and Democratic leaders have made cap-and-trade legislation a top 2020 session priority after a similar bill failed to pass in the Senate in the waning days of the 2019 session. Democrats say they have made concessions to lessen opposition and ease impacts on rural areas. Republicans have expressed doubts the concessions go far enough. The GOP caucuses in both chambers have discussed and reportedly approved a walkout. 

A walkout of any significant time, even a week, could throw the short session into procedural chaos. Under the rules, most bills must pass out of their committee of origin in the second week of the session. Some measures are considered in joint House and Senate committees, which has more lenient deadlines and, therefore, could prompt a longer walkout. That, in turn, would likely result in a limited agenda negotiated by Democratic and Republican leaders.

limited agenda, mostly to address budget issues that could not be contemplated in a biennial budget, is what most advocates of annual sessions promised when the idea in the form of a constitutional amendment was approved by Oregon voters in 2010. Republican Senator Kim Thatcher has introduced Senate Joint Resolution 202 that would eliminate the even-year short session and retain the current 160-day limit on regular sessions. Thatcher said she is open to an alternative that would place limits on what could be considered during an even-year short session.

Budget issues will be prominent in the 2020 session. The Department of Human Services is requesting an additional $126.8 million in spending authority, $14.3 million of which would go toward reducing the number of children placed in foster care. The Oregon Health Authority is seeking $30 million to bolster staffing, open additional mental health beds and lay groundwork for new residential treatment centers. Brown wants $12.7 million to ensure the ShakeAlert warning system is operational by 2012. She also wants $150 million or more to enhance the state’s wildfire capability and forestland management to avoid fires.

Even though state coffers have grown, tax measures also will dominate the short session. Among them is a push by Brown to reverse a voter-approved ban on the use of real estate transfer fees so they can be imposed to fund affordable housing. There will be attempts to insert exemptions into the newly approved commercial activities tax approved in the 2019 session to fund the Student Success Act.

A certain flashpoint will come from a Democratic proposal, House Bill 4005, to require gun owners to secure their weapons with trigger locks. Senate Bill 1538 would allow local governments and school districts to ban concealed weapons. Gun measures were part of the negotiated settlement that ended the GOP walkout in the 2019 session.

The state’s Public Records Advisory Council is pushing a bill to ensure the state public records advocate remain politically independent. A Senate bill to limit individual and political action committee contributions apparently has been shunted to the sidelines for the moment.