This Time, Oregon Republicans Aren’t Walking Out. They Want the Public to Walk Back In

GOP lawmakers appear to be using a work slowdown to protest a remote session.

Across the state, Oregonians are worrying about when to return to their offices. Among the most eager: Republican lawmakers, who want the state Capitol open for in-person meetings.

THE SITUATION: Democrats, who control the leadership of both chambers of the Legislature, developed a plan at the beginning of the year with Republican input for reopening the Capitol. Their plan called for reopening to the public once Marion County's COVID case counts dropped. "The Capitol shall remain open only to authorized personnel when Marion County remains in extreme, high or moderate risk," reads the Capitol Operations Safety Plan. Marion County is currently at high risk. Adds Danny Moran, spokesman for House Speaker Tina Kotek: "Members of the public would be traveling to Marion County from all over the state, so state health officials have also recommended that we need to consider the risk levels statewide as a factor for expanding access too."

THE DEMAND: Legislators are already working in their Capitol offices. What Republicans want is for the public to be allowed in the building, too. (Practically speaking, that also means lobbyists, who are currently not allowed in.) That's part of a wider call by conservatives to reopen the state's schools and economy more rapidly. On March 9, the GOP's Senate caucus released a statement calling for Democrats to come up with a plan to open the Capitol by April 21. "If herd immunity isn't the benchmark for giving Oregonians full access to their democracy, I don't know what is," says Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod (R-Lyons). "I am calling on the presiding officers to develop a plan to reopen the Capitol by April 21."

THE JUSTIFICATION: By April 21, the Oregon Health Authority projects it will have enough doses for 70% of the adult population. But 70% of the entire population (not just adults) is projected to need immunity to COVID-19 to prevent another virus spike—and kids under age 16 can't get the vaccines yet. So OHA estimates that 90% of everyone over 16 needs to get the shot (or have natural immunity from contracting the virus) in order to achieve herd immunity. Republicans say they just want a firm schedule. "We said, 'Have a plan by 4/21'—there is a difference and there is a big difference," says Dru Draper, spokesman for the Senate Republicans. "We assume there will be consultation with experts that will incorporate the data." Among the data Republicans mention: low case counts among children, who can't yet be vaccinated. "For our purposes, if that means no school field trips in the state Capitol for a while, then that is fine and probably wise," Draper adds.

THE TACTIC: It appears they're engaged in a work slowdown. House Republicans have refused to forgo the reading of bills, lengthening the time required for floor sessions. Democrats have scheduled a 7 pm floor session to accommodate that. Though the GOP hasn't made an explicit connection between the slowdown and the call to reopen the Capitol, House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) called the remote session "grossly inadequate" in a floor speech explaining the call for bill readings. "We are not here to facilitate the ease of the passage of someone else's agenda that harms my community and my state long term," she added.