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Let voters decide on legislative quorum

Oregon Senate Democratic leaders have wisely decided to spare taxpayers the expense of a lengthy court battle by forgoing fines against minority Republicans who walked off the job twice during the 2019 legislative session. The walkouts prevented the Senate from conducting business by denying a quorum.

Democratic leaders had vowed to fine Republican senators $500 a day for leaving their jobs. Republicans said they would challenge the fines court, alleging the Democrats had no authority to assess them.

Democrats said they weren’t worried about losing in court, but they wanted to avoid a lengthy legal battle and hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded legal fees. That was the right call.

The right call for Republicans now ought to be to give voters a chance to amend the state Constitution to prevent future walkouts from halting the people’s business.

Oregon is one of only four states that require two-thirds of legislators be present to conduct business. Forty-five states require a simple majority, while Massachusetts requires two-fifths of senators and three-eighths of representatives.

This is not and should not be a partisan issue. Both parties have taken advantage of the quorum requirement in Oregon and in other states to block legislation they did not like.

The voters determine who they want to represent them. In 2019 in Oregon, they have elected a majority of Democrats in both houses.

In 2001, it was Democrats who walked out of the House to prevent majority Republicans from passing their redistricting plan as a resolution rather than a bill. If it had passed as a bill, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber could have vetoed it. By the time the absent members returned, the redistricting deadline had passed and the job went to Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat.

Legislative walkouts also have occurred in Texas, Wisconsin and Indiana, all by Democrats.

It’s not appropriate for either party to refuse to participate in lawmaking just because they are not in control. While the party walking out may succeed in blocking the specific legislation they oppose, halting all business can prevent other bills, less controversial but important, from passing before the session ends. That shortchanges the voters, who elect lawmakers to do a job, not to abdicate it.

Oregonians may well decide they like things as they are, and leave the two-thirds quorum requirement in place. But voters ought to be given the opportunity to change it if they wish.

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