Orca Plot Fails

The tension in Salem at the end of any legislative session is attractive if you’re an unrelenting sociopath who loves pain and heartbreak. With the preceding five months of plodding public process behind them, partisan legislators will finally cast their votes in stone in early July. The game will only finish when the budgets are decided. It’s one of the things I miss most about being out of the Legislature for the past 12 years. I loved counting votes.

When I was in the Legislature, our only time limit to get out of Salem was when we got a balanced biennial budget delivered to the governor’s desk and signed. Sine die is Latin for “without another day.” When you were done, you were done. There was no absolute date to leave. A deal had to be reached or you didn’t go home.

The rules changed a few years back. Now, with annual sessions (a good idea), there’s a hard deadline to finish each session. For these folks, it’s July 11.  To change that date and extend the end of the session even by three days would require a 75 percent vote of the House and Senate.

Ain’t gonna happen. If asked today, the Oregon House couldn’t get 45 R's and D's to agree on the planet upon which they were voting!

A few weeks ago my successor, Floyd Prozanski, invited me to sit with him as his guest on the Oregon Senate floor, now that I’m retired. I hadn’t been there for 12 years. It’s always been against the rules of both the House and the Senate for state employees to appear for no apparent reason on the floor of either chamber during session. Good rule. And I was previously a state employee. But that was then!

I took Floyd up on his offer last Wednesday, June 24. What a hoot! Unfortunately, due to my appearance on the floor, Republican Senate leader Tim Knopp spotted me in my orca drag costume. My secret plot was blown. I considered the alternative AT&T plan to disguise myself as a faux tree-cell tower, but by then it wasn’t worth the effort.

I couldn’t have picked a better day to witness the collapse of the legislative process. Senate President Courtney was decidedly not on his game that day. He had Senate pro-tem President Ginny Burdick run the opening ceremony that morning. He sat behind her with his head down, both hands on his forehead, agonizing. 

The night before, on Tuesday, June 23, Courtney confronted his bipartisan rump group working on a transportation package. He told them he’d had it: They had not moved anything forward. Courtney could not get a Republican buy-in without sacrificing a bill which had already passed. The clean-fuels program was a top priority for Democrats. He walked out on the meeting, done. 

That night he announced a “Special Senate Committee on Sustainable Transportation” and appointed three D’s and three R’s, including our local guy Chris Edwards as co-chair. This was an end run around everyone else in the building. Courtney wanted them to push out a bipartisan last attempt at a transportation package. But it was flawed: It required replacing the clean-fuels program bill and imposing a gas tax for roads. 

Without support, the deal was declared dead Wednesday afternoon. Not enough votes.

My hard-hearted, irascible lobbyist friend Marla Rae maintains that three things must happen to bring any legislature to sine die. Number one: A breakdown has to occur. Number two: Some leader has to have walked out during a meeting. And number three: There has to be actual tears shed on the floor of one chamber or the other. 

I think we’re about there. The transportation plan has blown up several times, so a breakdown has occurred. And Courtney fulfilled number two by walking out on his rump group.  

However, number three was harder to verify. Actually, Rep. Paul Holvey, House Business and Labor chair, volunteered to cry on the House floor just to end the debacle. However, it was quickly pointed out that, being a union carpenter, Holvey would require at least six weeks apprenticeship training — too little, too late. Marla immediately lined up 10 business lobbyists, who had appeared before Paul’s House Business and Labor Committee all session, to teach Paul how to cry. They had experience.

I think the session is about done. Holvey need not cry.

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