The longest-ever walkout in the Oregon Legislature reached its fourth week on Wednesday as the enforceability of a ballot measure that would disqualify the boycotters from immediate reelection appeared in doubt.
Senate President Rob Wagner once again tried on Wednesday to convene the Senate, which last met on May 2.
“We’ll give this another shot,” the Democrat said. But a roll call again showed that nine Republicans and an Independent party senator were absent without being excused, preventing a quorum and keeping votes on Democratic bills on abortion, gender-affirming care and guns on ice.
In what has become a Groundhog Day ritual in the past four weeks, Wagner then banged the gavel to close the aborted session. He said he'd try again the next day.
But Sen. Tim Knopp, leader of the minority Senate Republicans, says the boycott will end only on the last day of the legislative session, June 25, to pass “bipartisan" legislation and budget bills. Wagner says Democratic priorities including a sweeping measure to guarantee abortion rights are not negotiable, and Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek has backed that stance.
After GOP lawmakers boycotted the Oregon Legislature 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 being reelected 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.
The wording of the measure’s text — and not the more succinct title or summary — is now part of the state constitution.
A lawyer hired by a political action committee called “Oregon’s 13 Constitutional Defense Fund” — a reference to Oregon’s 12 Senate Republicans and Boquist — asked Acting Secretary of State Cheryl Myers on Tuesday to rule that Knopp and Independent Sen. Brian Boquist can run in the 2024 election, and serve terms starting in January 2025 if they win.
“It appears from the unambiguous text, that if they are to be disqualified from holding the office of senator, it would be for the term that begins in January of 2029,” attorney John DiLorenzo Jr. wrote in his request.
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.
“It’ll be an interesting issue for the courts to resolve," former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Jack Landau said in an interview. Courts generally follow the ordinary meaning of words in the text of a ballot measure, he said.
"But if the wording of the measure is reasonably susceptible to more than one interpretation, then the courts will look at ... the ballot title. They’ll look at the statements in the voters pamphlet and things of that nature to resolve the ambiguity,” said Landau, who is the distinguished jurist in residence at Willamette University College of Law.
Meanwhile, Senate and House Democrats on Wednesday lashed out at the “anti-abortion, unconstitutional Republican walkout in the Senate,” saying in a statement that it endangers measures including a $4 billion investment in public safety to address crime and gun violence, protect children who are victims of sexual abuse, tackle fentanyl overdoses and ensure police have the resources they need.
“Oregon communities, families and small businesses were clear that public safety must be a top priority for us this session,” said Democratic Rep. Daniel Nguyen.