SALEM, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — When Republican senators fled the state in mid-June to avoid voting on controversial legislation, they were gone for nine days.
They drove or flew out of state, stayed in hotels or cabins, and otherwise lived out of sight.
Most went to Idaho, though Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, told the Oregon Capital Bureau he was in Texas. A spokesman for Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, said he was on the east coast attending a conservative conference.
Some legislators and lobbyists remaining in the Capitol speculated that the 11 senators would tap their political campaign accounts to cover their travel costs.
That doesn’t appear to be the case.
And they also so far haven’t faced the $500-a-day fines threatened by Senate Democrats that would likely total $3,500 for each. Senate President Peter Courtney’s staff said Friday, July 12, he still intended to bill the absent senators, but shared no firm plan for doing so.
Senate Republican spokeswoman Kate Gillem said the threat of fines now “looks like a bluff.”
Sen. Herman Baertschiger, the Senate Republican leader, questioned the legality of imposing fines. He said outside attorneys have been hired to look into it. “I have a feeling this is going to get complicated,” Baertschiger said.
There was talk about the fines being deducted from senators’ pay. “The fines shall be collected by forfeiture of any sum that becomes due and payable to the absent member, including salary and per diem,” Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said on the Senate floor June 20.
But now Senate Democrat leaders say they will send invoices.
The Oregon Capital Bureau reached out to the 11 senators by email and phone, and five responded: Baertschiger, and senators Cliff Bentz, Alan Olsen, Bill Hansell and Kim Thatcher.
Bentz said if he ever gets a bill, he will decide what to do. Olsen said if he gets one, he’s not paying it.
A legal question
When the Legislature is in session, lawmakers receive $149 a day for living expenses. The traveling Republicans still collected that money while they were absent, according to Legislative Administration.
All said they used their own money to pay for travel and confirmed they haven’t been fined yet. Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, did voluntarily pay $3,500 in fines and said he did so to set up a legal challenge to such punishment.
Baertschiger said he never advised the caucus to use personal funds but believes each senator did so on their own.
When asked if he was exploring reimbursements for those senators, such as through campaign funds, Baertschiger said “No, I think we’ve just all agreed to pay for it with personal money.”
Bentz, from Ontario, agreed there was no directive on how to pay for expenses, but said the caucus is looking into reimbursement. “The only thing that was really said was save your receipts in case there is a reimbursement opportunity,” Bentz said. “I know people are looking into it, but I know the safest thing was for me to pay out of my own pocket, so that’s what I did. I haven’t decided whether I will ever ask for reimbursement.”
Justin Brecht, a policy analyst for Senate Republicans, said the caucus has asked outside attorneys and the state Government Ethics Commission about that issue. Since the circumstances surrounding the walkout are unprecedented, this was new legal ground, Brecht said. “It’s still kind of a legal question we haven’t had answered about how one could go about that,” Brecht said.
Bentz said he drove about 1,000 miles, paid for six nights in a motel and had to feed himself. “These expenses are real,” he said. Bentz said he’s received “dozens” of reimbursement offers. He’s turned them down, and hasn’t yet calculated his expenses.
The Oregon Capital Bureau inspected campaign spending reports for all 11 senators, and found no instance of them charging walkout expenses to their campaigns, which are largely funded by outside contributors.
Two GoFundMe accounts were set up to assist the senators with their expenses. “Encourage the Walking Senators” received nearly $40,000, according to its online site. The other got $950. However, lawmakers might violate state law by accepting that money, Brecht said, and so the money wasn’t touched. The larger account posted an update July 5 saying it stopped taking donations and instead directed donors to a website still taking donations. The site said donations would fund opposition to the kind of cap-and-trade legislation that triggered the Republican walkout.
About a week ago, the GoFundMe page said the money originally raised for the senators would be given to a political action committee. The Stand With Our Senators PAC also has about $40,000 in it, though it’s not clear if it’s the same money. There is little match between donors identified as giving to the GoFundMe account or to the PAC. The GoFundMe received more than 700 contributions, mostly small and by individuals. As of Friday afternoon, the political action committee listed 70 contributions, largely from construction and timber companies — both industries opposed to the cap and trade program — and a $5,000 donation from former Rep. Knute Buehler.
GoFundMe creator Carol Williams of Silverton and the committee treasurer, Lori Piercy of Rainier, couldn’t be reached for comment.
In addition to the travel expenses, Senate Republicans are also potentially facing the daily fines. The Oregon Constitution allows fewer than a quorum to “compel” the other members to return, but doesn’t explicitly mention fines.
A manual on legislative procedure says members can “inflict such censure or pecuniary penalty as may be deemed just” when a member is absent during the session and “a sufficient excuse is not rendered.”