Commentary

Republicans staged historic walkout, but they didn’t get much for it

The Oregon Legislature wound up doing most of what the majority wanted to do

June 28, 2023 5:30 am

The Oregon House of Representatives adjourned sine die at 4:26 p.m. on Sunday, June 25, 2023. (Julia Shumway/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The 2023 Oregon legislative session was dominated by a six-week strike, the longest by legislators in the state’s history.

Did it matter?

Yes, but not as much as many people would have expected, and we may need a while to figure out exactly how much.

The impact of the walkout and this year’s session fall into three categories.

The simplest is that the 10 Republican senators who exceeded the constitutional limits for unexcused absences cannot serve the next term after this one, disrupting their party’s ability to try to gain control of the chamber. That’s a major price for a political party to pay, since open seats – as theirs will be next time – are easier targets for an opposition party. Because of local political conditions, most probably will remain Republican, but not all. 

Yes, there’s a legal action seeking to overturn the limitation, and you can never predict what a court might do. But the rule is now in the Oregon constitution – after voters overwhelmingly endorsed it last year. Since it clearly doesn’t conflict with anything in the federal Constitution, attorneys for the senators will have a hard time finding a lever to overturn it. 

The second area of impact involves the Republican demands leading to the walkout. These mainly concerned legislation Democrats had proposed relating to guns, abortion and LGBTQ issues. 

The Republican senators held off a proposed law change barring Oregonians under 21 from buying guns, and allowing local governments to ban guns from their buildings. (Expect those subjects to return next year.) But the final version of House Bill 2005 did include a ban on ghost guns – firearms created through 3D printing, for example, and lacking traceable numbers – and required that nearly all existing guns in the state carry a tracking number by September 2024. It also set up an investigation into the sources of gun violence, which may be useful.

Gun safety advocates didn’t get all they wanted, but they got at least half a loaf, maybe more.

The biggest focus of the Republican walkout, House Bill 2002, passed with most of its major elements intact: liability protections for Oregon abortion providers following the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and a requirement that insurance companies cover gender-affirming medical care. The main deletion from the package obtained by Republicans has to do with parental notification of an abortion for a child younger than 15. The bill, which hasn’t been signed by Gov. Tina Kotek yet,  still would allow a provider who obtains a second opinion to bypass parental notification in cases of potential abuse. Abortion rights and transgender rights advocates in Oregon can take that result as a win. 

The Republicans didn’t get much for the sacrifice their senators made, and neither did they, in the end, stop the flow of legislation. 

Kotek appeared to score only one significant loss (and that at the hands of her fellow Democrats), relating to an adjustment of land-use law to expand housing stock. She got almost everything else she sought.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenbaum said in a press release, “I am thrilled that every major bill on my legislative agenda passed! From banning unserialized ‘ghost guns’, to requiring transparency and limits on the use of our personal data, to moving forward our work preserving access to abortion, and fighting labor trafficking and bias crimes.”

Budgets were approved, as they must be each session, and so were scores of bills on all sorts of topics – including substantive measures on housing and homelessness, boosting support for public defenders and encouraging semiconductor development in the state. 

That means the walkout had few legislative aftereffects, though we all may discover glitches in the flood of bills passed in a rush at the session’s end. 

Consider this quote from Kotek, delivered shortly before the session’s end, about the supersonic speed at the Legislature: “Once the (walkout) deal was reached, everything went into overdrive, and I have not had a chance to look at all the bills. We will make sure we understand what I’m signing and there might be some things I don’t agree with, but right now I don’t know what those are.” 

We may see echoes of that for months as critics of many of the rapidly-processed bills examine them carefully for legal or other flaws – and we’ll probably find more than a few. 

The Democrats who were mainly responsible for passing them all so quickly will, of course, have to answer for them. 

But so will the Republican walkouts. 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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