After Republican Protest, Oregon's Climate Plan Dies

Jun 25, 2019
Originally published on June 26, 2019 8:49 am

Updated at 3:13 p.m. ET

Oregon's sweeping plan for addressing climate change this legislative session is dead, Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat, announced on the state Senate floor Tuesday morning.

As a walkout by Republican senators over the cap-and-trade bill entered its sixth day — and in an apparent attempt to bring them back — Courtney gave assurances that the bill would die in the Senate chamber.

"What I'm about to say I say of my own free will. No one has told me to say this," Courtney said. "HB 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor. That will not change."

He went on to describe a wide array of policy and budget bills that have yet to be passed this session, including funding for the largest agencies in the state.

"This is a remarkable opportunity to finish our work," Courtney said. "Please, senators, come to this floor."

The announcement appears to mark an end to the state's plan to institute a cap-and-trade bill. Whether it will succeed in getting the Republicans back to the building is unclear.

Republican Sen. Cliff Bentz said Tuesday morning he had only just heard of Courtney's announcement and that he had questions about its meaning.

"The question becomes, 'What are they trying to do?' " said Bentz, who is believed to be staying in Idaho while the boycott plays out. "Are they trying to make some sort of arrangement? If they are suggesting they don't have the votes, what's the procedure they're going to use to kill the bill?"

Sen. Tim Knopp, a Republican from Bend, Ore., echoed that confusion.

"We need clarification. What does that mean?" Knopp said. "Does it mean it's dead until the 2020 session? Is the governor going to take it up in a special session?"

Meanwhile, senators who backed the bill appeared livid and declined to speak to reporters on the floor.

The cap-and-trade policy, a plan to cap carbon emissions and make polluters pay for their greenhouse gas production, is a Democratic priority in this year's session.

The party holds 18 of the Senate's 30 seats and so could only afford to lose two votes to muster the 16 needed to pass the bill. Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson strongly opposed the policy, and Sen. Arnie Roblan, also a Democrat, had indicated he was a possible "no."

As Courtney spoke, supporters of the climate bill got out of their seats in the Senate gallery and turned their backs to him.

"They have the votes. They just don't have the courage," Shilpa Joshi, a 31-year-old climate activist, said afterward. "They are jeopardizing our future."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an update now on Republican senators in Oregon who fled the state last week in many cases attempting to block a sweeping climate change proposal. Now Democrats who control the legislature have announced the bill is dead, but Republicans are not returning yet. Here's Dirk VanderHart of Oregon Public Broadcasting.

DIRK VANDERHART, BYLINE: On Tuesday, climate activists swarmed Oregon's state Capitol. They wanted to push House Bill 2020, a proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that has led to a political crisis here. But before the rally could begin, Oregon's Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat, made a surprise announcement. He said the bill didn't have enough support among Democrats to pass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER COURTNEY: House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor. That will not change.

VANDERHART: The bill was a central reason 11 Republican senators launched a boycott of the Senate last week denying the quorum needed to pass laws. With the proposal apparently off the table, Courtney and other Democrats demanded Republicans get back to work. Ginny Burdick is the Senate majority leader.

GINNY BURDICK: They never should have left in the first place. And their reason for leaving is now gone. So where are they?

VANDERHART: The answer is apparently Idaho, or Washington or wherever the senators went to evade Oregon State Troopers. In the hours after Democrats announced the climate bill was dead, it became clear Republicans were suspicious. Cliff Bentz is one of the GOP senators who walked out. He said his party needs more assurances Democrats plan to kill the climate bill.

CLIFF BENTZ: I think there's a real challenge for President Courtney to be able to show, indeed, the bill, should it be called to the floor, would not pass.

VANDERHART: As of Tuesday evening, no deal had been struck. That means Republicans are still facing $500 fines for every day they fail to show up. Indeed, not everyone is ready to give up on House Bill 2020. Following news of the bill's demise, a handful of Democrats took to the Capitol steps to talk to climate activists. Among them was Senator Michael Dembrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL DEMBROW: We are looking at a couple of very difficult days ahead of us. And I need to know that everyone who's here around me is committed to this struggle. Are you?

UNIDENTIFIED CLIMATE ACTIVISTS: Yeah.

VANDERHART: Oregon's legislature is under a tight time limit. Lawmakers still need to pass a completed budget before they're required to adjourn on Sunday. If that doesn't happen, Governor Kate Brown has promised to call them back over the summer. It's expected to be a hot one.

For NPR News, I'm Dirk VanderHart in Salem, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.