A one-day Republican walkout in the Oregon Senate on Thursday was sparked by Gov. Kate Brown's announcement that she will extend the COVID-19 state of emergency until May 2.
"We had to get their attention," said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, one of the lawmakers who was not present for Thursday's scheduled session.
The Republicans sent a letter to Brown protesting her decision and other COVID-19 restrictions and calling on her to support reopening the state Capitol, which has been closed since March 2020.
"We need an open process for our constituents to engage in testimony on bills," said Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Pendleton. "We want transparency so people can have a voice in what is going on."
Hansell said he was taking part in virtual committee hearings on Thursday and will continue until the next scheduled Senate floor session on March 3.
"I plan to be there," Hansell said.
The emergency declaration extended Thursday gives the governor the legal power to issue executive orders on health and safety, including restrictions on businesses, schools, meetings and activities. It also now covers vaccine distribution.
Oregon currently has the second-lowest rate of infection in the nation, which Brown and Oregon Health Authority leaders have credited to strong measures to cut off the spread on the virus. While trends in the past month have shown a steep drop in COVID-19 cases, the OHA says the virus is still a major threat and spikes have been caused by earlier moves to loosen the rules to allow more social and business interaction.
“When I issued my first state of emergency declaration last March, there were 14 known cases of COVID-19 in Oregon,” Brown said. “Today, we have now seen more than 150,000 cases across the state and, sadly, 2,194 deaths."
The walkout caught senators who arrived at the Capitol by surprise, with 18 Democrats gathering on the Senate floor, an activity that some lawmakers have worried could expose them to infection. All lawmakers were wearing face coverings on Thursday.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, the Legislature's longest-serving member, came to the podium after the roll call showed no Republicans had come to the floor.
"I did not know they would do this," Courtney told the senators. "Yes, there are hard feelings here and there, but nothing of this magnitude."
Courtney called the Republican action "gameplaying" and said he wouldn't take part, opting instead to adjourn until next Wednesday.
"They need to be here and do what they need to do to show their opposition on the floor and allow us to move forward," Courtney said.
The Republicans' move meant five bills that could have been moved into position for votes next week are now delayed. The 18 Democrats could not move ahead without some GOP help.
"We need two more to satisfy our constitution to have a quorum to do the people's business — all the people's business, not just our own."
He asked the Republicans to return to the floor for the session next week. He then gaveled the chamber into adjournment.
"Very regrettable," a glum Courtney said.
Senate Republicans walked out in 2019 and 2020 over carbon cap legislation that Democrats said they had enough votes to pass in both chambers. House Republicans joined in the 2020 walkout.
Knopp and then-Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, did not join the 2020 walkout. Both lawmakers were locked in tight re-election campaigns in increasingly Democratic districts. Knopp narrowly won his district, while Helt was defeated by Democrat Jason Kropf.
Republicans attended three special sessions last year to deal with emergency legislation addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, its associated economic upheaval, wildfire recovery and police reforms.
Knopp and Hansell confirmed the letter to Brown also called on her to open schools, open businesses and not redirect shipments of vaccine away from rural counties that have met the current Phase 1 vaccination goals and want to move on to other groups.
"The governor continues to keep schools closed, continues to keep businesses closed, despite science that shows they can open safely with appropriate health measures," Knopp said. "We hope this will open a dialogue about what is important to all Oregonians, not just the advocates who got them elected."
Hansell said the edicts from Brown and the Oregon Health Authority have his constituents confused and angry.
"I get emails from teachers saying 'please open the schools,' from parents who say 'please open the schools, this is driving our child to depression,' from seniors who can't understand why they can't get a vaccination and the state took it away from Morrow County."
Senate Democratic Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, slammed the Republicans for using the walkout again, especially amid a pandemic.
"Senate Republicans continue to sabotage Oregon’s democracy and undermine the will of voters," he said. "They have abdicated the oaths of office many of them took just weeks ago."
Democrats have introduced legislation to lower the quorum required to a majority and force any member who misses 10 calls to the floor without permission of the presiding officer to be punished by forfeiting their ability to run for re-election. Both would need voter approval to amend the constitution.
The slow pace nationwide of distribution of vaccines has extended the arguments over health and economic policy that began last spring.
Supplies of the two vaccines currently available have been slow to arrive in states. Since December, Oregon has administered about 860,000 shots. Both vaccines require two shots. Oregon has an estimated 2.8 million adults, which would require 5.6 million shots.
Medical workers, plus residents and staff in nursing homes were the top priority for vaccination. Brown opted to move 153,000 educators, staff and daycare workers in front of vaccinating older residents. A court order required vaccinating about 13,000 inmates and staff at correctional institutions.
On Monday, the last of the age-related groups will become eligible, with all those 65 and over approved to receive inoculations. However, availability has proven elusive for many residents despite eligibility. OHA has said its goal is for 75 percent of seniors to receive first doses by April, with second shots by May.
Brown is expected to announce the next eligible group on Friday. A vaccine advisory panel has suggested Oregonians with medical conditions that make them more susceptible to hospitalization and death from COVID-19 go next. Brown has also expressed a desire to find a way to get more residents of historically marginalized communities and groups into the vaccination centers.
Regardless of the choice, at current rates of inoculation, the next eligible group would most likely have to wait until late spring or summer to start receiving shots. Additional supplies from Pfizer and Moderna, the companies currently approved to make vaccine, would shorten the wait. So would new vaccines, such as one from Johnson & Johnson that is nearing emergency approval by the Food & Drug Administration. It requires only one shot, though initial studies show it has a somewhat lesser effectiveness than the current pair of vaccines.