UPDATE: The bill lacks the votes in the Senate to pass, Senate President Peter Courtney says.
The fate of a sweeping climate change proposal that prompted Senate Republicans to abandon the statehouse appeared in doubt Monday, as both sides continued negotiations to end the standoff.
Throughout the day, rumors circulated in the Capitol that House Bill 2020 was in jeopardy — because of shakiness in the Democratic ranks, the need to get Republicans back in the building, or both. Staffers, lawmakers and lobbyists all said that the bill could be offered up as a sacrifice in order for the Legislature to adjourn by the constitutionally mandated date of June 30.
At the same time, leading Democrats were tight-lipped about the state of talks, and Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, issued a statement to announce there was no deal.
“I have been in communications without any results and nothing has been determined,” said Baertschiger, who is apparently staying in Idaho to avoid the reach of Oregon State Police. “My caucus and I intend to remain out of the state.”
The death of HB 2020 would amount to a stinging defeat for Democrats, who made passing a program to regulate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions a central goal of the 2019 session. It could be a coup for Republicans, who currently hold just 11 of 30 seats in the chamber, but who in a separate walkout this year succeeded in killing high-profile bills to tighten state laws on gun control and vaccine exemptions.
But among Senate Democrats on Monday, another narrative seemed to be emerging: That Democrats don’t have the votes to pass the controversial bill, regardless of Republicans’ actions.
Sixteen of the 18 Senate Democrats will be needed to pass the bill through the Senate, and two — Sens. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose — are seen as likely “no” votes. Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, has also expressed concerns about the bill and has been seen as a possible “no” vote.
“The Republicans left knowing that there weren’t the votes for House Bill 2020,” said Lee Beyer, D-Eugene. Later in the conversation, he added: “I don’t see the votes to pass it right now.”
Gov. Kate Brown, who won re-election partly on a promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, did not appear confident in an interview that the bill had a path forward this year.
“We have this legislation in front of us, we need to get it done,” she said. Pressed repeatedly whether her intent was to pass the bill this session, Brown would only again say: “We need to get it done.”
Later, the governor said that it would not amount to a political defeat if the cap-and-trade bill was delayed to another session.
“I've been in this building for a very long time,” said Brown, a former state representative, state senator and secretary of state. “I know that good ideas sometimes take a lot of time to pass.”
Rumors of a possible deal were widespread but varied Monday.
One source raised the possibility that the bill could be referred to the November 2020 ballot, a move that Republicans have said would bring them back to the building, but that Democrats had opposed.
Others suggested Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, had floated the idea of killing HB 2020 in exchange for a quorum, and that Republicans had asked for the assurance in writing. But as of late Monday morning, key Republican senators had no inkling a deal might be in the offing.
“At this point, there’s no offer that’s on the table for the caucus to consider of which I’m aware,” Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said shortly after 11 a.m. “There are literally conversations happening as we speak.”
If HB 2020 is cast aside to get Republicans back to work, it would mark a shift for Democrats, some of whom have insisted they’ll refuse to give ground to Republicans in the face of the second walkout in as many months. Lawmakers have said allowing the minority party a victory would amount to “rewarding bad behavior.”
“They swore to uphold the Constitution of the state of Oregon,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who believes Republicans are in violation of their oaths of office. “The Constitution of the State of Oregon says, ‘Show up for your damn job’ and they’re not doing it.”
Some Democratic Senators on Monday voiced concerns over what a compromise could mean for the future of Oregon politics.
“Does this become the way we govern?” said Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Tualatin. “For people who love Oregon, who love our constitution … does this become the way we react?”
Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said Democrats are discussing good governance and the possible long-term repercussions of agreeing to the Republicans’ demands and policy and budget bills that would be jeopardized if Republicans didn’t return to the Capitol.
“We have a very short period of time in which to make decisions where we weigh the things we need to deliver right now against the consequences of a perception that tactics like this work,” Gelser said.
Bills currently in limbo include proposals to create a paid family leave program, ask voters to hike tobacco taxes and allow increased housing density in the state. There are also major state agency budgets that hang in the balance and would carve out money to fight wildfires and hire more child welfare caseworkers.
Years in the making, HB 2020 would make Oregon the second state in the country to implement cap-and-trade regulations on the transportation, manufacturing and utility sectors. California was the first.
The program would place a limit on Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions, with that cap declining over time. Many of the state’s largest polluters would be required to purchase credits for at least some of their emissions, and would be free to trade those credits in a secondary market.
The proposal has support from a wide array of environmental and community groups, who believe it puts Oregon in a position to lead the country on the issue of climate change. Still, other environmental groups have railed against the plan, saying it is too easy on polluters.
The bulk of opposition, though, comes from industries opposed to rising prices that the bill could create. In recent weeks, loggers have shown up in force to the Capitol, at times circling the building in their trucks and honking their horns.
Because of the way HB 2020 would regulate automotive fuels, gas prices are expected to see a near-immediate increase when the program takes effect — potentially of more than 20 cents a gallon. Though lawmakers support provisions for easing the burden of those increases on low-income families, the bill has been painted by opponents as something that would have a destructive impact on rural Oregon.
The bill passed the House last week, but as it approached a final vote in the Senate, word began to spread that Republicans were mulling a walkout. Gov. Brown and her staff made a last-ditch effort to prevent a boycott last Wednesday, working all day to broker a compromise that ultimately proved unsuccessful.
Republicans had left the state by last Thursday, and the governor immediately ordered state police to try and bring them back.
In her comments to OPB, Brown was unsparing in her criticism of Senate Republicans, saying they’d violated an agreement struck with Democrats in May.
“This is not Republicans versus climate change,” said Brown. “This is Senate Republicans versus democracy. This is Senate Republicans versus the Legislative branch.”