(Podcast) How Measure 113 aims to end legislative walkouts

Podcast Photo by T Harper

Photo by T Harper

October 13, 2022

In recent years, some lawmakers have failed to show up for work as a tactic to derail legislation. We speak with Tan Perkins, campaign manager for Measure 113, about the harm that legislative walkouts inflicts on Oregonians, and how the measure would deter walkouts.

In the second segment of the show, Audrey Mechling of the Oregon Center for Public Policy explains the good, the bad, and the ugly in the latest poverty figures.

Transcript

We make this transcript available for your convenience and to increase the accessibility of our content. The transcript was generated by software and was reviewed manually, so we cannot guarantee that it is a perfect transcription. If you are able to, we encourage you to listen to the recording.

Juan Carlos Ordonez (host): Today, on Policy for the People, we explore one of the measures appearing on the Oregon ballot. Measure 113 aims to end what's become a common tactic by some elected officials: not showing up for work, grinding legislative sessions to a halt, and ensuring that nothing gets done. In a second segment, we will focus on the new numbers on poverty that came out recently. We will discuss the good, the bad and the ugly regarding those poverty figures. Stayed tuned.

How Measure 113 aims to end legislative walkouts

Juan Carlos: When you look at the political landscape within Oregon and nationally, you find that there are a number of rules that are inherently anti-democratic, rules that favor the minority over the majority.

We can point to the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, the use of the Electoral College to determine who wins presidential elections, or the supermajority rules when it comes to raising revenue here in Oregon, just to name some examples. These anti-democratic structures give power not to those who represent the will of the majority, but to those who are in the minority. And when we have rule by the minority, that means that many of the changes that most of us would like to see happen don't get done.

Here in Oregon, there is an anti-democratic practice that has been used quite a bit recently.

News clip #1: Things are a bit out of whack in Salem. The 11 Republicans who are supposed to be in this Senate chamber are hiding, likely out of state, to block a vote.

News clip #2: For the second time this legislative session, Senate Republicans have staged a walkout.

News clip #3: Hopes for a compromise were dashed once again today in Salem. The Oregon legislative session is now over.

Juan Carlos: Legislative walkouts are not a new tactic. When you look at our state's history, you find that both parties have used them. But since 2019, we have seen the party currently in the minority resort to walkouts over and over again. This November, Oregon voters will be able to decide on a ballot measure that could act as a deterrent against legislative walkouts: Measure 113. I spoke with Tan Perkins, campaign manager for Measure 113, about the harm that legislative walkouts inflict on Oregonians and how the measure addresses the problem. Here's my conversation with Tan.

Let's begin by setting the context here. What is the problem that Measure 113 is trying to solve?

Tan Perkins: Measure 113 is very simple, and it's trying to solve a big crisis in our state, which is the issue of politicians violating their oath of office, walking away from their one stated constitutional duty, and grinding the state legislature to a halt when they really just don't get their way. So what we're trying to solve is the lack of work getting done in Salem because some folks decide to walk off the job and violate their oath of office.

Juan Carlos: Can you say a little bit more about walking out, how that grinds sessions to a halt?

Tan: You know, what was really once a last resort tactic for lawmakers of either party in the minority has recently in the last five years become status quo. This results in important policies dying in the legislature, never seeing the light of day. So wildfire mitigation, safe gun storage, health care funding, vital things for Oregonians are grinding to a halt because folks don't show up for a vote on the floor.

And when that happens, a vote can't be taken. So that policy, that bill, whatever it may have been, goes nowhere. It doesn't get voted on and therefore it dies. And folks who might have relied on that legislation getting passed really are the ones that pay the cost.

Juan Carlos: And maybe for the listeners who may not have been following in great detail the last few legislative sessions, can you say a little bit about the mechanics of how a certain number of legislators deciding not to show up for work can stop a session from proceeding?

Tan: There are only a couple of of days, really, in a session where we need folks to actually show up. Right? So committee hearings where folks are just talking about policies or bills or things like that, that doesn't impact something being voted on. But when a floor session is called in either house, we need a certain a number of folks from each house to be there for a vote to happen and for a vote to either pass or not pass.

So when certain politicians decide to skip that, there's not enough people for the vote to take place. And when that happens, nothing can happen. Right? So if there's not the required number of folks when session is called or when a vote is called, right before session is called, then nothing happens. It's just a standstill. It's completely stopped. And there's nothing they can do until those folks decide to come back.

And sometimes they don't at all. Like in the 2020 session when all but two bills died for an entire session, which is, you know, that's hundreds of bills being proposed. Only two went anywhere and everything else went absolutely nowhere.

Juan Carlos: And how many lawmakers walking out does it take to bring a session to a halt?

Tan: In the House, we would need 21 folks to be absent to deny quorum. And then in the Senate, you need 11 people to be absent to the nine quorum.

Juan Carlos: And just to put those figures in even bigger context, there are 60 House members and 30 senators. How many times have lawmakers used the tactic of walking out in recent years?

Tan: Since 2019, there have been six actual walkouts, so six actual freezes, shutdowns, whatever you want to call them. Which is quite a lot because before 2019, this was a last resort tactic for minority parties in the state of Oregon. And so six times maybe doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a massive influx. And then the real problem is the threat of folks not showing up.

So six times they've actually not shown up, but countless times they've threatened to not show up, which has also shown to be very effective. Right? Then folks are like, “Oh, you know, we shouldn't say this. We shouldn't say that because they might not show up. We have no idea if they're going to show up today.” This kind of thing.

So to answer your question, it's six times since 2019, but the real thing that we're getting at here is the amount of times it's been threatened, and still in many ways caused things to slow down change, and also just let folks with a really heightened sense of apprehension, of not knowing and really being left out to dry. A lot of times you're like, “Hey, I don't know if we're going to be able to work today.”

Juan Carlos: So how have the recent walkouts affected Oregonians? How have we seen the impact on the ground?

Tan: It has affected every single Oregonian, and that's because of the amount of bills that I that I mentioned that have died. Right? So bills that would have mitigated wildfire damage in 2020 didn't happen. Emergency housing account that would have helped it be easier for cities to build household shelters in 2020 didn't happen. Reducing the cost of prescription drugs didn't happen.Veterans’ services didn't happen. Help preventing suicides and mass shootings, nothing there. Protect water rights in southern Oregon also didn't happen. Covering the cost of some prescriptions for emergency medical conditions didn't happen. And then also updating the state's mental health system and funding for victims of flooding. All these all of these things that I just named, and that's not the complete list for the record, but none of those happened.

And that's what I'm saying when it affects every single Oregonian. Right? Because no matter who you are, I bet one of those things have touched you. If you're in southern Oregon in 2020 and you got hit really hard by those wildfires, there is a wildfire mitigation damage bill that never went through because of walkouts. I listed a lot of things, but I really believe it does affect every single Oregonian, because it does.

Juan Carlos: Let's switch gears here and talk about what the measure does, how it seeks to fix the problem. Can you walk us through the details of Measure 113?

Tan: So what our measure is doing is basically saying, here's a consequence for your behavior. What it's doing is if you are elected to the state House or state Senate in Oregon and you have ten unexcused absences, unexcused absences from floor sessions, you won't be able to hold office your next term. Okay. So once again, this is a floor session only, when things are called to vote. So if you don't show up to a committee hearing or something like that, that doesn't count towards this. This only counts when you are called to a floor session to take a vote and you don't show up and you don't give an excuse. That's all we're trying to do. And it will be categorized as disorderly behavior. So you have ten unexcused absences. That's disorderly behavior. You're still going to be able to legislate the rest of your term two or four years, whatever it is. And then after that, you're not going to be able to run for reelection for your seat as a consequence. So that's like kind of the nitty gritty mechanics of it: if you are absent without excuse ten or more times from a floor session, you're not going to be able to run again.

So that's kind of the strategy that we drew up and I'm happy to talk about more about like why we landed on that. But I'll pause there if you have any clarifying questions on that.

Juan Carlos: Yes. And I think maybe just to make it clear that the text of the measure talks about unexcused absences. So you can have an excuse, you can have a valid excuse, and it doesn't count toward the toward the limit. So presumably, if you're sick or if you're giving birth to a child or perhaps you're on paternity leave, things like that, you know, it's not going to count against you. It's unexcused absences, correct?

Tan: Yeah. That's exactly right. And we haven't seen absences or things like that be abused in the past or folks are like, “Oh, you know, when I have a doctor's appointment or I have, you know, a family thing,” whatever. We've seen time and time again folks be like, “Cool, thanks for letting us know.”

But what we also have seen, though, is folks saying absolutely nothing. Like I mentioned earlier, we don't know if they're going to show up or not. We have no idea. Our folks in the building have no idea. And so, you know, you're very like on edge. Like, “I don't know if I'm going to be able to do work today.” And what we're also really trying to combat, right, is there needs to be more communication instead of it always being this looming threat.

But yeah, to be clear, if you have a valid excuse, you have a valid excuse.

Juan Carlos: Another thing that I think is worth explaining is that if you do have the ten or more unexcused absences, the ban that would follow would be for one term. It's not a lifetime ban on running for four state office, correct?

Tan: That's exactly right. I think we're really trying to walk this line where we're not trying to be overly punitive. We're we're trying to find a solution where things work, where folks show up to work. And if they don't show up to work, there is some kind of consequence to it. But no, it's not a lifetime ban, right.

And it's not like you immediately lose your job. Even if you hit the ten unexcused, you carry out your term. It just goes into effect if you wanted to run for reelection. And then, as you just said, it's only for one term after that where you're not able to run. So like I said, it's not overly punitive. We're really just trying to find a way to make sure that folks can do their job.

Juan Carlos: Maybe we can go back to the issue you had raised earlier, which is how you arrived at this particular solution. Maybe you can explain a little bit about that.

Tan: If you or I no-called, no-showed to our job ten times, I doubt either of us would have a job. And I'm sure most Oregonians, if not all Oregonians, would be in the exact same boat as us. So it feels quite unjust that folks that are elected to do a job get to face no consequences. So we were like, okay, this needs to stop. Work is not being done. Our legislature and our democracy really are being held hostage, right? And so how do we how do we find a solution here where really folks still have the room to stand up for something that they believe in if they want to. But also, they don't just get to have absolute free reign and constantly put the entire legislature in a state of anxiety and hold up a bunch of bills.

So that's kind of how we landed on this policy. Ten, you know, it sounds good. I think it's a relatively generous number. And if you really, really believe in something and you want to walk out about it, you can, you know. You really can. But you just can't do it all the time with no consequence. And that's what we're getting at, not letting it be a free for all and constantly halting the progress in the process of the legislature.

Juan Carlos: Last year, the office for the minority party in the Senate issued a statement defending the practice of walkouts by stating the following, “Quorum rules are the last tool available to promote bipartisan cooperation.” How do you respond to that argument, that defense of the practice of walking out?

Tan: I don't think it's bipartisan cooperation. I think that it's fit throwing. To be honest with you, in 2020, The Oregonian had a great editorial that kind of addressed this and, you know, the real thing is that — and this is a direct quote — “If Republicans want to have the power of the majority, then they need to win it. That's how our democracy works.” That's a great quote because it's true, right? And that doesn't mean that there can't be bipartisan cooperation. But also, every time a bill you don't like comes up, you completely stop the work of the legislature. That's also not bipartisan cooperation. I think that Republicans are using this as a weapon, and I think it's been overused, which is how we got to doing something about it this year. So I think there can be bipartisan cooperation. I believe there are lawmakers in Oregon that believe in that and practice it. But if every time there's a disagreement, one party decides that they're just going to shut everything down until they get their way, that's that's not how things should work. And that's also not any form of cooperation. That's a hostage tactic.

Juan Carlos: As far as I've been able to tell, there is no organized opposition to Measure 113, is that correct? Are you finding that there is no organized opposition?

Tan: Yeah, I mean, that is correct. And you know, I always want to say knock on wood or whatever, because, you know, you don't always want to just throw that out there. But as of right now, yes, that's correct. There's no organized opposition. And I think it's because this is a consensus solution. There's no opposition statement in this year's Voters Pamphlet. There's nothing like that.

And I think that we have quite a robust coalition on our side. And it's because voters across the state and across the political spectrum really support this measure. And it's because it's about accountability. It's because it resonates with folks that anybody without consequence is going to rub folks the wrong way, as it should. And so as of right now, we don't have organized opposition.

And I think it's just because it's a strong message. I think it resonates with folks. And I also think that people are pretty sick and tired of politics in general in our country. And so when it's constantly on the news that once again, the Oregon legislature isn't able to do anything for weeks or months or whatever it is, I think that deepens that distrust in folks.

And so I think that what we've seen is folks are excited for some kind of solution to this ongoing problem.

Juan Carlos: And you talk about a coalition that is supporting the measure. Maybe you can give us an idea who has weighed in in favor of the measure.

Tan: Like I said, I think we have a great coalition. Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, Everytown for Gun Safety, Next Up, Pro-Choice Oregon, Naya Family Center, the ACLU of Oregon, PCUN, APANO, ONA, which is the Oregon Nurses Association, OEA, which is the Oregon Education Association, so teachers, Common Cause Oregon. You know, I'm not going to name them all, but we have quite a few that really span the gauntlet, as well as what these folks care about and are interested in. But I think, you know, our strong coalition also shows that folks really think that this is important and they really care. So, you know, we are quite proud of our coalition and obviously are very thankful to them.

Juan Carlos: Tan, are there any final thoughts you want to share with us regarding Measure 113?

Tan: There's a lot at stake in our state and in our country this year, and I think that if I leave folks with anything, it's a reminder that all of the protections we want to increase or protect or even just start fresh with will depend on this measure passing. We have really strong protections for a lot of things folks care about in Oregon, but, you know, expanding them, fortifying them, all of those things will require folks to show up in the legislature and do their job.

And so I think this measure passing feels even more important, to make sure that Oregon remains a safe haven for its citizens and for other folks in the country if they need to come here as well. So I think if I leave folks with anything, it's that, you know, what's at stake in our country. I know a lot of folks are feeling that. And so if we want to continue to really be a beacon of hope and a beacon of safety, we need to make sure that we're able to get those things passed in the legislature as we head into this long session. And we can't do that if it's constantly held hostage by certain politicians.

The good, the bad, and the ugly in the latest poverty figures

Juan Carlos: And now we turn to the issue of poverty. Recently, the US Census Bureau released data on where poverty stood last year, in 2021. I spoke with my colleague from the Oregon Center for Public Policy, Audrey Mechling, who recently wrote an article titled The Good, The Bad and the Ugly in the Latest Poverty Numbers.

Audrey, there was really good news recently when the new child poverty figures came out, figures released by the US Census Bureau. Can you tell us what that good news was?

Audrey Mechling: Absolutely. So it was great news. National figures actually showed a 40% drop in the official childhood poverty rate. It went from around 10% in 2020 to just above 5% in 2021. That last year's figure was actually a record low.

Juan Carlos: What explains such a dramatic drop in childhood poverty in such a short amount of time?

Audrey: There's a pretty clear cause when it comes to what reduced childhood poverty by that amount. And it was the fact that the Child Tax Credit was expanded in 2021. So the Child Tax Credit is a refundable credit. The change that was made was it made those payments monthly so that families are able to count on a constant, sustainable amount of money that adds to their budget.

Congress also expanded the amount of those payments, so families were getting more money from this tax credit. The expansion of that tax credit and making it monthly was a huge boon to low income families with children. And the drop in poverty can be tracked directly back to that policy change.

Juan Carlos: And for the folks who benefited from the Child Tax Credit, do we know how they used this money?

Audrey: Yeah. Most of the money from the expanded Child Tax Credit went to pay for essentials like food and rent. At the start of the school year, families were spending the money on school expenses, including books, supplies, tutoring and after school programs. These patterns were particularly the case among Black, Latino and other families of color.

Juan Carlos: So this massive decline in poverty as a result of the enhanced Child Tax Credit seems to show that we know how to shrink and even eliminate poverty if we choose to. What do you think about that?

Audrey: Without question, the existence of poverty is a policy choice. We know that giving people cash is really effective in eliminating and reducing poverty and economic hardship.

Juan Carlos: The dramatic decline in childhood poverty that we saw last year is, as you said, great news, but there's also cause for concern. What's the bad news regarding the latest poverty numbers?

Audrey: The bad news is that as things stand right now, these amazing gains are going to be temporary. That's because Congress has failed to take action to make the expansion of the Child Tax Credit permanent. When they first passed the policy, the expansion was set to expire at the end of 2021. So those extra payments, those monthly payments were set to stop.

Now, at the end of 2021, we pushed for Congress to make those changes permanent. They failed to take that action, and they continue to fail to take action. Congress still has the opportunity to take action to stand up for these low income families with children. These gains don't need to disappear. We don't need to let millions of children fall back into poverty.

Juan Carlos: And Audrey, if we step back and look at the bigger picture of economic insecurity, things look uglier still. They look worse. Correct?

Audrey: That's right. So we released a product recently called Data for the People where we looked into economic insecurity and economic hardship. And one of the things we know is that poverty is an outdated and insufficient measure of economic hardship. The poverty line is, quite frankly, way too low. So we looked at a different measure of economic hardship or economic insecurity, and that was using the United Way's measure called ALICE and their survivability budget. And what that showed us is that while only around 10% of Oregonians live below the poverty line, 44% of Oregonians earn too little to make enough to survive.

Juan Carlos: 44%. So more than two out of every five Oregonians, in other words.

Audrey: Absolutely.

Juan Carlos: Audrey, I'm wondering if, for the benefit of the listeners, you can explain a little bit more what the difference is between the poverty line and this other more accurate measure of economic insecurity.

Audrey: When I say the poverty line is far too low for anybody to live on, I mean that for a family of three to be considered living in poverty, they have to be making under $21,000 a year. And that is just clearly not enough for three people to survive on. So using United Way’s measure, using the ALICE measure the survivability threshold, that same family of three, an adult and two children, would have to make $51,500 to meet a survivability budget.

And that includes your basics, your transportation, housing, health care, child care. This measure includes a lot of things that the poverty line doesn't account for that are really the necessities to get by.

Juan Carlos: In other words, it's sort of like a no-frills, make-ends meet budget.

Audrey: Absolutely. A no-frills budget.

Juan Carlos: Obviously, Congress can play a huge role in improving economic security for everyone. But what can we do at the state level? What can the Oregon legislature do to address poverty and economic insecurity?

Audrey: There is a lot the Oregon legislature can do. As we talked before, cash policies work. So the Oregon legislature should look to enact policies that put money in the pockets of low income folks. The legislature should also remove the obstacles that constrain worker power so that workers can bargain for better wages and benefits. And finally, we need tax justice.

We need the rich and corporations to be paying their fair share so that we have the resources to strengthen the public services that improve the lives of all Oregonians.

Posted in Economy, jobs & workers.

More about: measure 113