As the Republican Senate walkout continues in Oregon, some lawmakers and policy advocates worry the state might miss out on tens of millions of federal dollars available for climate action.
This week, Republican senators continued their standoff to avoid voting on bills they’ve deemed extreme, including one that would allow children of any age to receive an abortion without parental permission, among other provisions.
Last year, Oregonians voted to end walkouts by approving Measure 113, which impacts legislators’ ability to run for office again if they accumulate 10 or more unexcused absences. A number of Republican senators have hit that crucial mark.
The stakes of the stalled Legislature extend beyond House Bill 2002 and the Republicans’ reelection bids, however.
“There are probably hundreds of other bills at risk if we can’t get back to work,” said state Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Southern Jackson County. “Basically, our full climate agenda.”
Marsh, who is the chair of the House Committee on Climate, Energy and the Environment, said there is a tremendous amount at stake for climate action if bills are not passed during this session.
The Republican tactic of using walkouts to stall legislative debate on policies they don’t agree with has affected climate policy before, including in 2019 when similar actions in the state Senate killed a package to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The next year, a similar walkout directly targeted a revived cap-and-trade climate package.
This time around, Oregon could miss out on tens of millions of dollars as it scrambles to meet rapidly approaching climate goals.
Marsh and other lawmakers — including Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane — have been working together for months on a set of bills with a focus on building efficiency to help communities and state buildings adapt to climate change. The bills include incentives for energy efficient retrofits, creating building codes that would reduce energy consumption, and launching policies to retrofit all state and local government buildings by 2035.
Those House bills, Marsh said, are currently in the Senate and are “just sitting because nothing is happening.”
“The thing that people really need to understand is how much work is at risk if we can’t get back, if we can’t get bills through the Senate,” she said. “The important climate work that we’ve brought into this session, that’s on the cutting-room floor.”
Marsh’s biggest concern is failing to secure federal funds available through the Inflation Reduction Act. The law makes $369 billion available for clean energy and green infrastructure projects that would help low-income residents and communities of color adapt to climate change. Oregon, like all states, will receive some portion of that funding, but other portions are only available through a competitive application process.
Marsh said many of the Oregon House bills depend on those available funds to administer the planned programs and create incentives.
“A lot of our work in our climate package is setting up structures so that Oregon is in the best possible position to get as much of that federal money and to invest it wisely in our homes, in our communities,” she said.
Meredith Connolly, director for the West Coast policy advocacy group Climate Solutions, said Oregon needs the programs in place to be able to use any federal money the state will get.
“Most of that money is not just going to be written as a check to Oregon,” she said. “We actually have to have agencies put together plans, have the capacity, go out and create programs.”
Connolly said the walkout is particularly bracing for her coalition.
“I think it hits a little harder for climate folks because we know what it feels like to have your bill be the focal point [of a walkout],” she said. “I think once you give into those tactics, they become expected. Unfortunately, we’re seeing that continue, which is really deeply upsetting.”
Implications across the state
Climate action bills in limbo because of the walkout are numerous. They include bills for wildfire protections, heat pumps and energy efficient retrofits, as well as sequestering carbon in forests, farms and other lands. There are also bills aimed at the clean energy transition, including tax rebates for purchasing medium and heavy-duty electric trucks.
For central and eastern Oregonians, one of the main focuses is water. The regions have been drought-stricken for years, exacerbating issues from polluted drinking water to farm irrigation. A proposed, $250 million drought relief package is one of the stalled efforts.
Jeremy Austin, water program manager at Central Oregon LandWatch, said the package helps address the impacts of the climate crisis by paying for efforts to assess water availability, support farmers and restore fish habitat.
“We need to be looking ahead for this year and beyond,” he said. “Low river flows across the [Deschutes River] Basin are harming ecosystems, endangering fish, and disrupting the ecological balance of our waterways. At the same time, we face a parallel problem of working farms not receiving the water they need to keep their livelihoods afloat.”
As some sections in Eastern Oregon struggle with arid conditions worsened by climate change, Ontario City Councilman Eddie Melendrez is watching a bill that would help pay for tree planting across the state.
He said the city experiences lots of heat and there is a lack of trees, especially in public parks. Shade from trees can be essential in helping people endure rising global temperatures.
“We’re in a high desert, high-heat area and I think that many of the communities that need that tree canopy or the green infrastructure can definitely benefit from that,” he said.
In Southern Oregon, Unite Oregon Rogue Valley community organizer Rene Braga said the building retrofit bills would not only ensure residents are living in safer and energy efficient homes, but they would help them save hundreds in energy costs. He’s talked to many families of color, primarily Latinos, who are paying more than $200 a month on energy bills for one-bedroom apartments.
“We need to have more insulation, sturdier windows and doors and efficient heat pumps for heating and cooling,” Braga said. “We have to lower the energy bills for these people that really are the backbone of our infrastructure, and we need to just provide them with a dignified life.”
Braga said he became involved in climate action after his mother lost her home in the devastating wildfires of 2020. He said he’s frustrated the Republican walkout could have a significant opportunity cost for climate action.
“We need to get these people back to work, they’re getting paid to work and they need to get this done,” he said.
OPB reached out to all senators participating in the walkout for comment on what it means for climate action. Only Sen. Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek responded.
He said the issues that are currently stalling lawmakers are holding up climate bills he supports too. Hayden is a chief sponsor of a bill that would fund recycling innovation and another bill that would reduce the state’s carbon footprint by requiring state agencies to buy goods and services within Oregon rather than importing them, when possible.
Hayden said his bill could move forward in the House even as the walkout continues, but is stuck in a Democrat-controlled committee. The chair of that committee, Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Southwest Portland, told OPB that while the measure has some support, there are outstanding questions Hayden needs to answer regarding calculating carbon footprints and business impacts. She said there are currently not enough Democratic or Republican votes to move the bill without those answers.
More broadly, Hayden said if the lawmakers can get back to work, he’d want to consider climate bills “not just on their impacts but practicality.”
As the legislative session comes closer to its June 25 conclusion, the significant backlog of bills means some bills will be left behind.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp of Bend issued a statement, committing to Oregonians that his party would return to the Capitol before the end of the legislative session.
He said his party was focused on the “real issues Oregonians care most about,” including homelessness, housing and public safety.
Climate change did not make Knopp’s list.