Betsy Johnson stays away, calls session a waste of timeEven for Oregon's notoriously unpredictable Legislature, 13 minutes is something of a record.

But that's how long a would-be special session lasted Tuesday, before House Republicans gave up the ghost.

It was quite a change from 2003, when legislators met for a record-setting 227 days to try and plug the state's yawning budget gap, and from 2002, when they convened for no fewer than five special sessions between January and October.

Back then, the topic was money or lack thereof - Oregon was one of the states hardest hit by the downturn in the national economy, and legislators had to find some way to keep the state afloat amid a steep drop in revenue.

Tuesday's aborted effort also centered on funding, as the state tries to claw its way back to economic prosperity. House Republicans wanted to pass a tight new state spending cap to send to voters in the fall, but minority Democrats - suspecting political grandstanding - were having none of it, and boycotted the meeting in droves.

Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said it would be impossible to do any real business with half a session. The Senate, not having a majority willing to meet, couldn't convene.

"I was not going to Salem to collect per diem for work that wasn't going to reach any conclusion," she said

House Speaker Karen Minnis tried to call the House to order but was forced to abandon the effort 13 minutes later, when it became obvious there weren't enough members present to conduct business.

Afterward, an angry Minnis accused Democrats of shirking their duty.

"We were here to do the people's business," the Wood Village Republican said. "We showed up. But we can't drag our Democratic counterparts here."

In announcing the boycott, House Democratic Leader Jeff Merkley of Portland said Minnis had no authority to convene a session because the Senate couldn't secure a majority to convene.

"We will not participate in an illegal session," Merkley said at a news conference.

Minnis contended that lawmakers were required to meet under a resolution passed by the 2003 Legislature that called for a June special session on tax reform.

But Merkley wielded a written opinion from Greg Chaimov, chief legislative lawyer, saying legislators "more likely than not" could withdraw their earlier request for a special session.

The partisanship didn't stop at the House, where Republicans hold a 35-25 majority. In Senate, evenly split 15-15 between the parties, Democrats also sent their regrets, while a dozen Republicans showed up to protest their colleagues' absence.

Sen. Ted Ferrioli of John Day, the Senate's top-ranking Republican, accused the Democrats of embarking on "governance by loophole" by disobeying the resolution for which many of them voted last year.

The root of the fuss is a proposed constitutional spending lid that Republicans wanted to put on the November ballot. It would limit state spending growth to 4 percent a year and put any excess revenue into a new reserve fund.

Many Democrats said the plan was not ready for legislative action and that it wasn't the overhaul of the state tax system that was contemplated by last year's resolution.

"I don't think the Legislature was ready to debate this issue, and I don't think Oregon was," said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

Democrats accused Republicans of trying to force them into voting on a measure they disliked to generate "campaign fodder" against them in the fall elections.

Supporters, though, said a savings account is needed to protect against budget problems in future economic downturns.

Johnson said the spending lid leaves a number of issues unresolved, including how a spending cap would deal with unintended financial consequences from voter-passed initiatives.

Instead, she supports examining all five proposals for tax reform that came out of the joint interim committee, of which she was a member.

"Let's step away from the partisan political rhetoric of an election year, and try and figure out if there are good ideas in these five proposals," she said.

The Oregon director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, a national anti-tax group, said the organization will make sure voters hear about Democrats' thwarting of the session.

"We will talk about their unwillingness to support the spending limitation," said Russ Walker, and refusal "to do the people's business."

He said he also doubts if the Legislature next year will pass a limit, so his group will work to put a spending cap on the 2006 ballot by initiative petition.

Walker's organization led the campaign against the 2003 Legislature's $800 million tax increase, which voters strongly rejected at a Feb. 3 election.


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