Senate sees highs, lows and a lot of bills as it comes down the homestretch

The Senate had a quorum for the first time in more than a week Saturday, and worked through 105 bills. (Claire Withycombe/Oregon Capital Bureau)

SALEM — The penultimate day of the 2019 Legislature was a busy one.

Most Republican Senators had returned Saturday morning, after departing in protest over a bill to cap the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the afternoon was filled with legislation that paused in their absence.

Lawmakers must adjourn by 11:59 p.m. Sunday.

The Senate took up 105 bills over the course of three meetings, most with minimal discussion.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who has been in the Legislature since 1981. “That is remarkable.”

Meanwhile, there were signs the walkout frayed relationships, and one senator’s heated remarks had not been forgotten.

The Senate was scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Saturday but most Democrats didn’t make it to the chamber in time, and 10 minutes later Courtney called a recess until 7 p.m.

When they returned, the tension was near palpable, and there was one obvious absence: Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas. 

Boquist was out of the Capitol for nine days during a coordinated walkout by Senate Republicans. Before he left, he made public statements saying that Oregon State Police sent to find him should be “bachelors” and “heavily armed.” It grabbed national media attention.

When he entered the building before the 6 p.m. session, it deeply upset some senators. 

Sen. Sara Gelser said once she saw a memo from an outside investigator that recommended Boquist not return to the Capitol, she stood firm. 

She told Courtney and Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, that she would not be on the floor with Boquist. Then she left. 

“Everyone has a right to be safe,” Gelser told Salem Reporter. “I will no longer support leaders or processes that empower those who intimidate, harass or threaten others. At some point someone has to stand up and say enough! There is no excuse for enabling or minimizing such threats in the name of Senate comity.”

Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, said she agreed with Gelser.

She went into the Senate chambers, and when the session picked back up, Boquist wasn’t there. She said Courtney and Baertschiger worked hard to resolve the situation, but also said the Senate has been “conciliatory for too long.”

Courtney declined to comment through a spokesperson, but said Boquist was excused from attending “because I asked him not to be here.”

Gelser brought up how Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, lost his chairmanship on a House committee over terse language to a lobbyist in a hearing. 

“Someone threatened to kill someone in the Senate,” Gelser said. 

Gelser wasn’t the only one upset. Two other senators, who asked for anonymity, said there was concern in the Democratic caucus about Boquist wearing his gun on the Senate floor. 

They asked a state trooper to talk to the caucus. The trooper said it’s legal for Boquist to carry a weapon on the floor if he has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. State police told senators they would bolster security.

Lt. Tim Fox, the agency’s spokesman, confirmed a trooper did talk to Senate Democrats, but wouldn’t say what the meeting was about. He said state police stationed 13 troopers at the Capitol — mostly in and around Senate chambers — which is many more than normal.

Three sources confirmed to the Oregon Capital Bureau that the caucus meeting was about safety concerns regarding Boquist.

During the first hour of the evening session after the recess, senators walked around from desk to desk, appearing to have stern talks. Courtney came over and talked to Gelser and Fagan after Gelser aired her grievances with the media.

But through it all, bills flew through the process. The Senate whipped through budget bills at breakneck speed.

And in the end, there was a moment of levity.

At first, House Bill 3145 looked like it would pass by a vote or two. 

Then, senators one by one started changing their votes. Momentum grew. Laughter broke out with each change to a no vote. 

Eventually, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was the lone “yes” vote. She sat at her desk in the upper right hand corner, alone, showing no reaction. 

Then, she lifted her hand, stuck out a thumb, and turned it down. The Senate, stiff an hour earlier, exploded with cheers. 

The bill failed because it was viewed as putting off a problem. 

A state-commissioned report recently found Oregon’s public defense system unconstitutional. The Office of Public Defense Services as a result decided to move to a per-hour pay rate for public defenders, rather than a flat fee. 

HB 3145 was a supplementary bill to fund the new structure, but a late amendment gutted the funding and replaced it with a task force. By killing the bill, lawmakers put pressure on themselves to come back in the next session and fund public defense to a constitutional level.

The House, meanwhile, also sped through bills as it met, concluding at about 8:45 p.m. Its to do list was much shorter: just over a dozen bills, according to the legislature’s website.

On Sunday, the real work starts as the most controversial bills have been saved for last. 

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.

For the latest news, follow the Enterprise on Facebook and Twitter.

SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING — For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.