Oregon Senate Republicans boycotted the state Legislature’s floor session on Thursday in protest of Governor Kate Brown’s leadership during the coronavirus pandemic.
The news came shortly after the governor announced she had extended her Covid-19 emergency declaration for another 60 days, until at least May 2.
It marked the fourth time in three years the GOP caucus walked out to deny majority Democrats the quorum they need to vote on bills or conduct other business.
In a public letter to Brown and an accompanying news release, Republican senators castigated the governor over her decision-making with regard to schools, vaccine distribution and small business restrictions amid the continuing pandemic.
“Oregon is the third-worst in vaccinating seniors in the country,” the letter read in part. “We find this unacceptable. This population is at a disproportionate risk of dying from Covid-19. This is a matter of life and death.”
The letter was signed by all 11 Republican state senators, including the newly sworn-in Sen. Bill Kennemer, a Canby-area resident whom county commissioners appointed to replace Alan Olsen late last month.
The senators also blasted Brown for failing to “bring forward a meaningful plan and pressure school districts to reopen.”
The senators noted that roughly 80% of Oregon students remained in distance learning as of last week, despite Brown’s stated goal late last year of having most districts offering an in-person option by Feb. 15.
They claimed the state has received more than $600 million in federal monies to reopen schools safely, and stands to receive another $1.2 billion if President Joe Biden’s proposed coronavirus stimulus package is passed, yet most of the state’s classrooms remain empty.
The senators asked Brown to “immediately reopen schools for full in-person instruction with proper public health measures.”
“The governor has completely failed Oregon families and students,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, of Stayton, said in a separate statement. “Parents and kids no longer have any trust in her empty promises. We need truly bold action.
“Governor Brown is the superintendent of public instruction. She needs to start acting like it and demand teachers’ unions immediately send their members back into the classroom.”
Finally, GOP leaders pointed out the disparity between the state and nation’s economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus-related downturn. While the U.S. has recovered 56% of its Covid-related job losses, Oregon has recouped only 37%.
“Our unemployment rate is well above the national median,” Girod said. “Thousand struggle to pay rent, tens of thousands are without jobs, and women are dropping out of the workforce at an alarming rate. Despite these facts, Governor Brown extended her emergency declaration, further tightening her grip on small businesses and working Oregonians.”
The walkout was a result of feeling unheard, the senators said, and was needed to elevate their concerns to the attention of Brown and the Democratic super-majority in both chambers of the Legislature.
“Our previous efforts to bring these issues to your attention have gone unacknowledged,” the letter said. “Thus, we are protesting today’s floor session. In this show of solidarity with Oregonians who are being failed by the current direction of your policies, we hope this action conveys the importance of these issues.”
In her statement Thursday, Brown said it was necessary to extend the state of emergency because of the continuing spread of Covid-19 and to ensure the state is able to take advantage of all the available federal relief and assistance, including aid with vaccine distribution.
“When I issued my first state of emergency declaration last March, there were 14 known cases of Covid-19 in Oregon,” said Governor Brown. “Today, we have now seen more than 150,000 cases across the state, and, sadly, 2,194 deaths.”
She said the steps Oregonians have taken over the past 12 months have helped the state’s infection and mortality rates to consistently remain some of the lowest in the country.
And, she added, Covid-19 critical care units are now seeing fewer and fewer patients for the first time since the pandemic began.
“As we vaccinate thousands of Oregonians each day and reopen more school buildings and businesses as safely as possible, now is not the time to let up our guard,” the governor said. “New, more infectious Covid-19 variants are circulating in the United States, including several confirmed cases in Oregon.
“We will continue to keep each other safe in the months to come by following the same safety measures we have throughout the pandemic: wearing face coverings, staying home when sick, maintaining physical distance and avoiding social gatherings.”
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