Republicans cite legislative readability standards for stance against bill

Author: Pat Dooris, Jamie Parfitt (KGW)

SALEM, Ore. (KGW) — Before embarking on a legislative walkout now stretching into its second day, Republican lawmakers in Oregon began agitating about a reproductive rights bill championed by Democrats. While Republicans openly opposed the bill on ideological grounds, they also insisted that it violated state laws and rules on legislative procedure.

Those procedural claims have since become the centerpiece of Senate Republicans’ walkout and the inspiration for their jab at Democrats, “FOLLOW THE LAW.”

But KGW’s The Story found that many recent examples of Oregon legislation violate the same rule — including legislation sponsored by Senate Republican leaders.

Republicans’ procedural angle appears to have started Monday, when Rep. Emily McIntire called for a point of order on the House floor. She claimed that House Bill 2002 B violated both Oregon law and House rules.

In a statement, House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson cited the Oregon Constitution, which requires that every legislative act be plainly worded, “avoiding as far as practicable the use of technical terms.” A 1979 law narrowed that requirement, adding that bill summaries “be written in a manner that results in a score of at least 60 on the Flesch readability test,” equivalent to an 8th-grade reading level.

House Republicans argued that the bill summary had a Flesch Reading Ease score of 14, well below the standard of 60.

Though Republicans tried to stall the vote over at least six hours of floor debate, the bill passed along party lines Monday night, 36-23.

In the Senate, Republicans tried the same tactic. The chamber went into recess after a Monday floor session, but when they reconvened that evening Senate President Rob Wagner ruled that the bill did comply with Senate rules.

On Wednesday, before HB 2002 could come up for a vote, all but two Senate Republicans refused to show up for work, denying a quorum and shutting down floor votes.

“We cannot allow the Senate to operate in an unlawful and unconstitutional manner, nor can we allow this reckless behavior to continue,” Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp said in a statement. “In an act of deep partisanship, Wagner ruled with total disregard for the integrity of the Senate to dictate his party’s extreme, unconstitutional agenda onto Oregonians at all costs. It is for these reasons we were compelled to take the unprecedented step of voting to remove Wagner from his role as Senate President, and why we are engaging in a constitutional protest today.”

In November, Oregon voters passed Measure 113, which prevents state lawmakers from running for office again if they have 10 or more unexcused absences during their term. The bill was clearly intended to prevent walkouts like this, but there are signs that several different Republican senators are still showing up to the session each day — allowing them to rotate through members in order to drag out the walkout while still denying quorum.

The Story’s Pat Dooris reasoned that Republicans can keep up the walkout for 11 more days without anyone running afoul of the Measure 113 rules.
The Flesch readability test

In his statement, Knopp seemed to acknowledge that — though the readability claim first came up in relation to HB 2002 — violations of this arcane rule are the norm rather than the exception.

Knopp argued that “every bill” in the legislature should return to its original sponsor so legislative counsel could redraft the bill summaries, meaning each bill would be sent back through committees before returning to the Senate and House floors for votes; essentially hitting a big reset button on all of the business before the legislature this session.

“In the last two days when we had bills on the floor, only one passed with a 64 on that (Flesch) scale. Only one,” Knopp told reporters on Wednesday. “And so, its important to us if we’re gonna have laws that we should obey those laws. If we have Senate rules — and the courts have said many times Senate rule can trump statute, especially as it relates to process. So, if we’re gonna have rules that have been adopted we should follow those rules.”

Knopp acknowledged that a Republican staff member discovered the existence of the 1979 readability law last month, the Associated Press reported. Knopp couldn’t say when the law has previously been followed, if ever.

When momentum began to build earlier this year to end Oregon’s pandemic-era rules that allowed state employees living and working remotely outside of Oregon to receive reimbursement for work trips back, Knopp sponsored a bill to do just that.

Senate Bill 853 had broad bipartisan support and looked to be making swift progress through the legislature before Gov. Tina Kotek announced that she’d taken executive action to end the reimbursement policy.

The thing about Knopp’s bill, SB 853? It has an even lower Flesch readability score than Democrats’ reproductive rights bill, HB 2002 — 3.8 compared to 14. Remember, the threshold is supposed to be a score of 60.

The Story’s Pat Dooris decided to use an online Flesch Kincaid readability calculator to determine the score for summaries of a couple of other bills with bipartisan support that have either already passed both chambers or show every sign of passing. The big Oregon CHIPS bill got a score of just over 24. A bill that would permit Oregonians to pump their own gas — one with a very short summary — got a score just over 4.
At the heart of the issue

Though Knopp appeared content to send back any bill that failed the Flesch readability standard, Republicans have made clear that HB 2002 is the real target of their ire.

Alongside the walkout on Wednesday, several Republican lawmakers announced that they had sued Democratic leaders in the legislature over HB 2002’s alleged violations of Senate rules, state law and the Oregon Constitution. The lawmakers are represented by Oregon Right to Life.

But on Thursday, a Marion County judge denied the lawmakers’ request for a temporary restraining order to halt HB 2002, agreeing with the defendants that the court intervening in legislative business would itself be a violation of the Oregon Constitution’s “debate clause.”

So what is in HB 2002? Though Oregon already has some strong protections for reproductive health in place, the bill is designed to expand those rights and align state laws around gender-affirming care with them. Much of it is, without a doubt, a response to growing restrictions on abortion and transgender rights in other states across the country.

Here’s the broad statement that kicks off the actual text of what’s being added to Oregon law:

“Every individual has a fundamental right to make decisions about the individual’s reproductive health, including the right to make decisions about the individual’s reproductive health care, to use or refuse contraception, to continue the individual’s pregnancy and give birth or to terminate the individual’s pregnancy.”

Many of the additions to Oregon law contained in the bill then work to make those rights unassailable.

Where Republicans have expressed their most vocal opposition to the bill comes later. Those reproductive rights would apply to Oregonians of any age, with the exception of voluntary sterilization of a minor under 15 years of age. Oregon law already allows minors age 15 or older to broadly make their own health care decisions.

Republicans have argued that someone under the age of 15 who gets pregnant should not be able to get an abortion without their parents’ knowledge or consent — essentially maintaining that parents should be able to decide whether their pregnant child gives birth to a child.

“This legislation is an egregious violation of the sacred relationship between a parent and a child,” House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson said in a statement on Monday. “As a mom, I can say with absolute certainty that the State of Oregon does not know more about the needs of my children better than I do. It is insulting and infuriating.”

The bill also requires insurers to cover gender-affirming care to the extent that a health care provider determines they are medically necessary. That care would be available without parental consent to people age 15 or older, as with other reproductive care.

“This bill does not change existing medical standards around gender-affirming care or the age someone can access them,” wrote Hannah Kurowski, communications director for the House Majority office, in a Monday statement clarifying aspects of the bill’s changes to transgender care. “It just makes sure that health care decisions Oregonians make with their doctors, family, friends, and confidantes won’t be dictated solely by intimidation or financial constraints.”

Democrats have said that the Senate Republican walkout also stems from their opposition to a gun control bill, House Bill 2005. Republicans vehemently opposed that bill in the House, but have not cited the bill as prominently in their public statements this week.

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