For the third time in three years, the Oregon Legislature has ground to a halt following state GOP lawmakers' choice to walk out.
As of Thursday morning, all 11 Republican-held seats in the Oregon Senate were left empty by the time floor activity was scheduled to begin. State Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas, a longtime Republican who shed his party affiliation last year, was also absent from the Senate floor.
In a statement posted to Facebook on Thursday, Oregon Senate Republicans said the walkout was in protest of the state's vaccine rollout for seniors and virtual learning models.
“Today Senate Republicans are protesting in solidarity with students who want to get back into the classroom,” the statement read. “With seniors who are being failed by the vaccine rollout; And with working Oregonians who are struggling to make ends meet.”
Oregon school districts have been allowed to reopen ever since Gov. Kate Brown relaxed her statewide health metrics late last year, though less than 20% of K-12 students were learning in-person, according to the state's data.
State lawmakers also passed a liability protections for schools in December backed by Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons. They apply for school districts abiding by state safety protocols and its prior set of health metrics.
Brown, who has pushed for schools to reopen against the wishes of many parents and teachers, made the decision in January to vaccinate education workers ahead of seniors. Seniors ages 70 and up will be eligible for shots on Monday.
Under state law, the Legislature is restricted from conducting floor business without two-thirds of its members present. Thursday's walkout effectively keeps state lawmakers from introducing bills or sending them to Brown's desk.
The walkout drew stern words from Oregon Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, who warned walkout protesters would see “consequences.”
“Oregonians are exhausted by Senate Republicans’ irresponsible actions against democracy,” Wagner said. “The Senate Republicans are denying their constituents the representation they deserve to have in the Senate.”
In 2019, the Legislature saw a GOP walkout over a corporate activity tax funding public schools. In 2020, another occurred over a cap-and-trade bill which Brown issued via executive order some weeks later. Both times saw fines of $500 per day issued to each of the walkout protesters.
This year's walkout protesters include newly elected Oregon GOP Chair and Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Myrtle Creek, one of the staunchest critics of the Senate's face mask protocol who has also been tied to a group harassing health inspectors.
Wagner added on Thursday that the Senate is prepared to advance “new rules and laws” restricting further walkouts protests.
The stakes are at an all-time high for state lawmakers who are considering some 4,000 bills this session. Those bills include renewed efforts to pass long overdue wildfire relief and housing for the homeless. This session may also see the state revoke riot immunity for police and restore voting rights to prisoners.
Thursday's walkout also stalled a scheduled floor vote on Senate Bill 554, whose chief sponsors include Wagner, which lets local jurisdictions ban firearms from public buildings with posted notices. Violations would count as a class C felony.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, was drafted in response to armed demonstrations throughout the state organized primarily by far-right groups in recent years. Oregon is an open-carry state.
SB 554 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday after seeing strong opposition from ranking Republicans, who included state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Kezier, the committee's vice chair.
“The last thing we should be doing is discouraging people from helping keep our communities safe by creating an inconsistent standard of laws across the state,” Keizer said.
State Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, a former correctional officer and sitting Senate Judiciary Committee member, disagreed.
“Even if it is a ‘good guy’ with a gun, that gun can be misused, or used against the ‘good guy,'” Manning said.
The bill would also hike application fees for concealed carry licenses from $50 to $100 and the price of renewing a license from $50 to $75.
Security at the state Capitol in Salem continues to be tight after a mob of some 300 Trump supporters stormed the building on December 21 while lawmakers were in a special session. The incident saw six suspects arrested, one of whom was granted travel privileges out of state ahead.
The building, which was closed to the general public in March due to COVID-19, remains fenced off and boarded up following the unrest.
The Oregon Legislature has until June 28 to resume its 2021 long session.
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