PORTLAND, Ore. — With a Senate walkout now in its fifth week, Thursday saw a big development in the Republican caucus. Lawmakers gathered in one room at the capitol, albeit not on the Senate floor and not to provide a quorum. Instead, a group of them got together for the launch of an "unofficial committee."
Ostensibly, the purpose of Republicans' committee is to investigate "government corruption" in Salem and hold elected officials accountable for ethics violations. To that end, the new Joint Committee on Oversight and Accountability formed for its first meeting Thursday night.
Admittedly, the committee has a lot to talk about after a series of scandals in Salem this year. Those include the resignation of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan following controversy over her moonlighting work for an influential Oregon cannabis company, as well as "Bourbongate" — the saga of Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission higher-ups playing favorites by setting aside bottles of top-shelf liquor.
While not directly linked to elected officials and state employees, there's also the matter of a $500,000 donation that the Democratic Party of Oregon took from an executive at disgraced crypto firm FTX, wrongly reported under the name of a different company, which earned them a reduced fine and admonishments from state election officials.
And Republicans claim that those are just the tip of the iceberg.
However, the unofficial committee doesn't seem to have any real power in the legislature. While Republicans said they asked Democrats to join the committee, they received no response.
As the meeting began on Thursday, the partisan group couldn't successfully get its meeting streamed on the Oregon Legislature's website, instead having someone record the meeting on a phone and stream the video on Twitter.
And if the live response was any indication, voters don't seem very interested in the committee either. The public comment period mostly backfired on the mid-walkout lawmakers. Instead of support for the new committee's mission, they received an earful from some constituents about the legislative logjam.
Several of the speakers, who aren't visible on Republicans' video, poked at the irony of lawmakers on a committee for oversight and accountability getting paid while refusing to show up for work in the Senate chamber — particularly after voters overwhelmingly approved Measure 113, which was intended to discourage walkouts by disqualifying lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from holding office next term.
"I know with my job, I had to show up for work every day — and I had to do all the duties of my job too," one person said during public comment. "I couldn't choose which programs I could or didn't want to do. I had to do everything that was assigned to me by my boss. And I'm asking the same thing for all of you, for all the Republican senators: Show up on the floor, do your job. You don't have to vote for the bills, do your job."
The Story reached out to Senate Republicans in the wake of the hearing to see if they had any response to the requests they received to get back to work. They responded that the creation of this unofficial committee was an example of them working.
"We knew that opening up the meeting for public testimony would likely mobilize left wing activists who are angered over the constitutional protest — this was not a surprise," a Senate Republican spokesperson said. "I did find it ironic that many testifiers were telling Republicans to 'get back to work' as Republicans were in the capitol doing just that — working. That is a stark difference from past walkouts."
The Oregon Senate is next scheduled to meet on Monday and Senate President Rob Wagner has said that if Republicans don't show up, he's going to start fining them. Democrats voted Thursday to fine senators $325 for each day they stay away — the same amount that they get paid each day.
For the last month, Republicans have collected their pay despite the walkout.
Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp fired back, attempting to turn it around. He said that Wagner, the top Democrat in the chamber, should pay the fines since it is Democrats' bill on abortion and gender-affirming care that Republicans walked out to protest.
"President Wagner is insistent on facilitating an unlawful, uncompromising, unconstitutional agenda," Knopp said, in part. "We suggest President Wagner pay our fines since it is his behavior that galvanized our protest."
"If Democrats want us to provide a quorum before June 25, they must agree to follow Senate Rules, follow the law, and work to put forward constitutional, bipartisan bills that don't violate parents' sacred right to love and care for their child," he concluded.
The latest news on negotiations to end the walkout hasn't been good. Gov. Tina Kotek said earlier this week that while she had been in talks with Republican leadership, they refused to accept any agreement that didn't include the death of House Bill 2002 — a bright line for Democrats. Meanwhile, hundreds of bills are on the chopping block.