UPDATE (5:27 p.m. PT) — Republicans in the Oregon House followed the lead of GOP senators and walked away from the Capitol on Tuesday.
In what has now become a familiar scene inside the statehouse, roll call was conducted in both chambers, a lack of quorum was declared and Democratic lawmakers adjourned for the day.
The fleeing Republicans left a clear message in their wake: They will return to work if Democrats agree to put their landmark climate change proposal before voters.
For the Democrats, at least so far, that appears to be a nonstarter.
“I know what my side is not willing to give, and I know what their side is not willing to give, and it’s the same thing,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. “[Republicans] don’t want carbon on the floor. My people want carbon on the floor.”
So the two sides are at an impasse – with state budgets, funding to fight wildfires and dollars for children placed in foster care caught in the middle.
Throughout the day on Tuesday, statements from Republican lawmakers flooded email inboxes to reinforce why they walked.
“[Democrats] have said no to every Republican amendment; they have – without a clear explanation – refused to send the measure before voters, and have chosen to advance cap-and-trade without a complete fiscal and revenue analysis,” Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said in a statement.
Democrats, meanwhile, took to the Capitol steps to rally in front of their supporters and counter the messaging coming from conservatives.
Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, contended voters have already had their say.
“‘Let the people vote,’ we are told. OK, OK,” Fagan told the crowd. “But I’m having a memory of an election where Oregonians voted and chose our lawmakers … So, if you already voted for candidates who promised to make climate change a top priority, make a little noise.”
Courtney, the state’s longest serving Senate President, said Monday he was willing to send the proposal to fight climate change by capping emissions and charging polluters to voters. His fellow Democrats shot down the idea.
“I was in the minority,” he said. “My side wasn’t interested. Governor wasn’t interested. Nobody was interested.”
Courtney has “no idea why” other Democrats are opposed to a ballot referral, he said. “There is a lot of polling, I hear … I don’t poll so I don’t know where it is.”
One person who has conducted some polling is Shaun Jillions, an industry lobbyist and forceful opponent of cap and trade. He says the results show why Democrats are skittish about sending cap-and-trade to the ballot.
“Our polling shows consistently that Oregonians would not support this measure,” Jillions said Tuesday. “We have polled it numerous times statewide.”
Gov. Kate Brown has long made clear she does not support a ballot referral on the bill. Brown’s office said she’s willing to be patient to ensure lawmakers have a chance to vote on the matter.
“There will be a vote on this legislation at some point,” said Nik Blosser, the governor’s chief of staff. “If Republicans want to stay out of state … and it has to wait until January, until the next session, that’s their choice. If they want to be that incredibly undemocratic and not let a vote even take place, that’s their choice.”
Global warming is happening, Blosser said, and the science isn’t going to change.
Democrats’ consistent unwillingness to send climate change policy to the ballot was clouded somewhat Tuesday morning, when the House Rules Committee introduced an array of bills that would ask voters to weigh in on the matter.
Some of those concepts were similar to proposed ballot measures put forward by the group Renew Oregon. They seek to ensure the states meets strong goals around greenhouse gas emissions and clean electricity, without providing any of the specifics of SB 1530.
Lawmakers also introduced a proposal that would ask Oregon voters to amend the state constitution to create more leeway for how gas tax money is spent. Currently the money must be spent on road projects. The proposed change would allow half of it to be spent on other legislative priorities – a prospect sure to infuriate some opponents of SB 1530.
Asked about her intentions behind the proposals, House Speaker Tina Kotek said they were meant “to make it clear that there are other more aggressive options that could be taken.”
Absent any ability to pass bills, energy in the Capitol was subdued Tuesday.
The only Republicans who continue to attend floor sessions are the two representing Central Oregon swing districts. Sen. Tim Knopp and Rep. Cheri Helt, are both Republicans from Bend, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.
“As a moderate who wants to vote for common ground climate legislation, I will remain in the Capitol in hopes we can dig deeper, try harder and reach further to find a policy that works for all Oregonians,” Helt said in a statement that made clear she opposes SB 1530.
The House, like the Senate, requires at least two-thirds of its members to be present in order to conduct business. That means the chamber is at a standstill if at least 21 Republicans refuse to attend.
Under the Oregon Constitution, the session must adjourn on March 8 at the latest, though it could be extended incrementally by a vote of the Legislature. That appears unlikely.
Kotek said the cap-and-trade bill has already gone through extensive vetting and been negotiated.
“I have routinely reached out to Republicans in a genuine effort to hear their ideas and compromise where we can,” the speaker said in a statement. “My door is always open …. We may disagree on policy, but one thing is for sure – we can’t reach consensus if the Republicans don’t show up for work.”
The House has already labored under delays this session, with Republicans refusing to waive rules that require each bill to be read in full before passage. Such waivers used to be common practice in the Legislature, but Republicans have forced bill reading increasingly in recent years to delay Democratic priorities.
SB 1530 would cap the greenhouse gas emissions allowed by the transportation, manufacturing and utility sectors, and lower the cap over time. Large emitters would be required to obtain credits for each metric ton of emissions and could trade those credits among themselves.
The absence of Republicans in both chambers is possibly unprecedented in Salem, even as walkouts have become popular in the last two years. GOP senators launched boycotts twice during the 2019 session.
After one of those walkouts, Senate President Peter Courtney asked the governor to send Oregon State Police after senators, prompting many of them across state lines to Idaho. Courtney said Monday he would not make a similar request this year.
“That’s more of a big show thing, and I’m not interested in big shows,” he said.