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Day 3: GOP standoff over school funding continues

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Republicans once again were a no-show for a multibillion education tax vote, shutting down the Oregon Senate Thursday for a third consecutive day.

The Senate has tried to vote on a proposed tax on businesses six times in the past three days. Each time, Republicans denied the chamber enough members to go through with a formal vote.

The chamber will meet again on Friday, a rare move as lawmakers are usually given a long weekend to return to their district and meet with constituents.

"I'd hoped to delay Friday sessions as long as I could but we're starting to fall behind," said Senate President Peter Courtney.

A Democratic supermajority has been scrambling to pass a budget and push through a long list of priorities, including school funding, housing and the nation's second cap-and-trade bill. The House has extended floor session multiple times in the past few weeks to deal with the backlog of bills.

Republicans say that the walkout is the only negotiating tool they have with Democrats.

"We don't want to stop the legislative process, however, the Republicans do represent rural Oregon and these policies will devastate our districts," said Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., in a statement. "Denying a quorum is the only tool to bring the Democrats to the table."

Republicans are protesting a proposed half a percent tax on some of Oregon's wealthiest businesses. The tax, expected to raise $1 billion a year, would affect less than 10% of all businesses and is planned to be funneled into the classroom to help educators boost student performance and decrease class sizes.

But opponents say the tax will lead to higher prices for consumers and that the money will be diverted to pay down outstanding pension costs. Republicans want the tax proposal sent back to committee and substantive changes to the state's Public Employment Retirement System, which has racked up over $25 billion in debt.

Sen. Tim Knopp, a moderate Republican from Bend, has been the only GOP member to appear on the floor. He said he's supportive of conservatives' approach and told reporters that Republicans are prepared to be in it for "the long haul."

The Legislature is expected to adjourn at the end of June, though the governor can extend the session.

A spokesperson for Senate President Peter Courtney said negotiations are still ongoing. Two plans for tackling the public pension system, also known as PERS, are set to be released Friday afternoon.

But Senate Minority Leader Baertschiger hinted that talks may be stalling.

"In my opinion, we should have been back to work on Wednesday this week," he said in a statement. "Yes, the Senate Republicans initiated the interruption of this session, but the Democrats have prolonged it."

The stalemate comes a day after a statewide teacher walkout over classroom funding. Over 25,000 teachers, parents and students marched in Portland as thousands of others participated in solidarity events around the state.

Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, the Portland Democrat who helped craft the legislation, spoke to a crowd of educators in Salem, saying it was now up to teachers to hold Republicans' feet to the fire.

"You are going to be what moves this over the finish line for us," she said.

Protesters marched the state Capitol, chanting for Republicans to "do your job."

Courtney didn't offer much hope for a Friday vote, however.

"We'll see what happens," he told lawmakers moments before adjourning Thursday afternoon. "We'll just see what happens."

A group including three Democratic senators stand among the empty desks of Republican senators during a Senate floor session at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on May 7, 2019. Republicans denied the Senate a quorum so they could avoid voting on an education revenue bill. (Connor Radnovich/Statesman-Journal via AP)