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Walkout leaves government damaged

In the end, majority Democrats did the only thing they could be expected to do by ending the 2020 legislative session four days early, rejecting truant Republicans’ offer to return today to the Capitol to pass key spending bills before the final deadline.

The good news is, it appears the Legislative Emergency Board will be able to salvage some of those key appropriations this week, with or without the participation of the minority party.

The bad news: Unless the state’s voters amend the Oregon Constitution to change the quorum requirement for the Legislature to do business from two-thirds of members to a simple majority, this may be the new normal for Oregon government. Any time the minority party — whichever party it happens to be — decides it doesn’t like a piece of legislation, all its members have to do is walk out and refuse to participate to get their way, regardless of the wishes of the majority of the state’s voters.

This walkout, first by Senate Republicans, then by their House colleagues, was over a cap-and-trade bill to address climate change and promote alternative sources of energy. We’re not interested in debating the pros and cons of that legislation again, except to say that majority Democrats made multiple changes in an attempt to address the concerns of rural Oregon. Last year, the first walkout was over a tax measure to increase funding for public schools. Next time, it could be something entirely different.

The real damage done by the walkout this time wasn’t the death of the cap-and-trade bill. It was the failure to pass a variety of spending measures, including a $45 million bill to open homeless shelters across the state without regard to zoning, planning and design rules. The measure, which was advancing with bipartisan support before the walkout, included $2.5 million for Medford.

Another bill would have given a $2 million grant to help Kid Time Children’s Museum prepare to move into the former Carnegie Library building in Medford.

A package of bills to address the state’s wildfire preparedness, which is tremendously important to this part of the state, also fell victim to the walkout.

Finally, emergency relief funds for flood-ravaged Umatilla County were left hanging.

The Legislative Emergency Board, a joint committee of lawmakers that has the power to make emergency appropriations between sessions of the Legislature, will convene Monday to salvage what it can of these important efforts. The E-board, as it’s known, has just $75 million to work with. We would hope that the board’s Republican members will show up to help clean up the mess they made of the 2020 legislative session, but even if they don’t, Democrats can act without them, because legislative committees can conduct business with a simple majority of members.

Democratic leaders announced Friday that the E-board would provide funding for flood damage and coronavirus response, but how much remains to be seen. What’s certain is that there isn’t enough money in the emergency fund to make all the allocations. And it would be irresponsible to deplete the fund entirely.

The Republicans’ offer to spend today passing important bills before the final deadline was really not an offer but an ultimatum. Because of legislative deadlines that expired Wednesday, lawmakers would have had to vote to suspend the rules before considering any bills. The minority party would therefore dictate what bills would be taken up — turning the ordinary function of the Legislature on its head.

Regardless of the merits of any bill, cap and trade included, that’s not the way the system works, and by agreeing to that through-the-looking glass procedure, Democrats would be ceding control of the process to the party that holds a minority of seats. We don’t blame them for refusing to do that.