With the clock ticking toward a mandatory March 8 adjournment and just three bills passed by both chambers, Oregon’s Capitol should be abuzz with urgency. Instead, it’s practically dead.
For the second day in a row, Republicans in both the House and Senate continued their walkout Wednesday – a last-ditch protest intended to tank Democrats’ signature climate change bill this session.
Without at least two Republicans showing up in each chamber, Democrats can’t achieve the two-thirds quorum necessary to conduct business. On Wednesday, that meant no bills were taken up in either chamber, something both Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek took pains to point out.
In separate speeches, the two presiding officers highlighted bills lawmakers weren’t able to consider because Republicans aren’t present.
In the Senate, Courtney listed bipartisan bills that dealt with water rights, building in tsunami zones, and policies against bullying. In the House, Kotek noted the chamber was being prevented from considering bills on tax breaks, behavioral health and school funding.
But neither Democrat offered any hint that they’d be willing to waver on the central object of the standoff: Senate Bill 1530, a proposal to create a wide-ranging cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions in Oregon.
“Carbon yes, but there are so many other areas that we need to be addressing in the time left,” Courtney said, addressing Republicans. “So wherever you are out there, will you please come back, vote the carbon bill and let’s get about the business every day that involves the public health, the public safety and the well being of our fellow Oregonians.”
Kotek and Courtney's speeches hinted at a central tension in the Capitol: In a session expected to take up pressing funding issues and some possibly landmark policy proposals, the stalemate has raised the question of whether lawmakers can get anything done before March 8 – and what happens if they don't.
Among big ticket items that have yet to move this session:
- Budget adjustments for troubled state agencies and pressing priorities. Lawmakers were expected to spend up to $500 million in surplus funds this session. That includes bolstering the Department of Forestry, paying for community corrections services that help keep people out of prison, $30 million to step up the state's mental health system, and $20 million for the state's public defense fund.
- A bill that would declare a homelessness state of emergency statewide, potentially making it easier to site homeless shelters. Under House Speaker Tina Kotek's proposal, $45 million in general fund money would go toward bolstering resources for Oregonians without shelter. Millions more would be borrowed to help bolster affordable housing. The bill, House Bill 4001, is currently sitting in a budget subcommittee and has not received a vote in either chamber.
- A law that would require gun owners to lock up their weapons when not in use. House Bill 4005 is awaiting a vote in the House.
- Gov. Kate Brown's proposal for bolstering Oregon's wildfire preparedness, including ratcheting up spending on thinning state forests and firefighters. A central vehicle of that proposal, Senate Bill 1536, is sitting in a budget subcommittee.
- A potentially landmark deal between conservation groups and timber companies, that could lead to an amicable agreement over how state forests are managed. House Bill 4168 is in the budget committee.
- Funding to help aid flood victims in Umatilla County. Last week, Gov. Kate Brown announced she was proposing $11.65 million in spending. The money would help people in the eastern Oregon district of Sen. Bill Hansell, one of the absent Republicans, and Brown's office says it can't be allocated unless the Legislature is around to approve it. Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschger, R-Grants Pass, has since accused Brown of "playing politics with peoples' lives." Brown's office denies this, but on Wednesday announced $1.8 million from an emergency loan would be spent to repair levees in Pendleton.
Hundreds of other items are also in limbo as lawmakers square off.
For their part, Republicans have jumped at the chance to blame Democrats for the unfinished priorities.
"It really was the decision of Democrat leadership and the governor’s office alongside to hold those issues back and to play politics with them," said House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby. "We’ve had three weeks."
The ongoing walkout was triggered Monday when Democrats passed SB 1530 out of the budget committee, sending it toward a vote on the Senate floor. The bill would set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions in the state, forcing them gradually lower over time. It would also require sectors with high emissions to obtain credits for every metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent they emit.
Democrats have made passing the program a central policy goal for years, arguing that climate change is a dire threat, and that Oregon can help lead the way in halting it. They’ve changed the bill significantly this year in an attempt to address criticisms, and say those changes will limit impacts on low-income Oregonians.
Republicans, on the other hand, fear the bill’s regulations will lead to increased costs that hurt business and prove unaffordable for their rural districts. Much of that fear is centered on the notion that fuel prices will rise under the program, potentially making goods more expensive. The bill currently doesn’t include fuel regulations for the majority of rural Oregon, theoretically eliminating the risk of higher prices at the pump in those areas due to cap and trade.
When the bill moved out of committee Monday, nearly all Republican senators walked out immediately, making good on a threat they’ve been making since last year.
In a more surprising move, House Republicans joined the boycott a day later, ensuring that business in neither chamber would be accomplished unless some agreement is struck between the parties.
As of Wednesday morning, any agreement remained elusive. Republicans are demanding that SB 1530 be killed or referred to voters in exchange for their attendance. Democrats are refusing to do either.
Just two Republicans remained in the building Wednesday: Rep. Cheri Helt and Sen. Tim Knopp, who both represent Bend districts where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans.
Knopp said Wednesday that he has not even participated in phone calls to discuss strategy with the rest of his caucus.
“I don’t need to be involved in the calls because I’m not out with them,” Knopp said, before joking: “I had a caucus today with myself but there was no consensus. It was kind of disturbing, actually.”
In past walkouts, Democrats have sent state police after truant Republicans. This time around, Senate President Peter Courtney said he’s ruled out asking for police help. House Speaker Tina Kotek has not indicated her position one way or the other.
At least some Republicans have apparently crossed state lines just in case.
Sen. Brian Boquist said Wednesday he is in Idaho, near the town of Orofino on the Clearwater River. Baertschiger told reporters on Tuesday that others have also left Oregon.
“They’ve been through this before and it’s just a lot less pressure on them if they leave the state,” said Baertschiger, who would only say he was in an “undisclosed” location. “To be quite honest, I do not know where most of them are, but they’re gone.”
On the House side, Drazan said she has encouraged her members to leave the state "so that police can actually focus on crime."
Drazan would not divulge where she is during the walkout, but said she is with "many" other Republicans.
It’s unclear exactly what powers police could exercise if they found an absent lawmaker.
When Republicans walked out to block climate change legislation last June, Democrats also promised to levy $500 daily fines. They wound up scrapping that plan, and Senate leaders have said they won't pursue that option this year.