Oregon climate battle: GOP walkout reveals sharp divisions

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A rebellion by GOP politicians in liberal Oregon intensified Tuesday when Republican members of the House joined their Senate counterparts in a walkout, freezing legislation on climate change, wildfire mitigation, homeless assistance and a landmark compromise between the timber industry and environmentalists.

The drastic move by Republicans in Oregon highlighted how pitched the debate over how to respond to global warming is becoming, with the GOP saying leaving the Capitol was the only way to halt legislation they view as too extreme in a Legislature dominated by Democrats. For their part, Democrats warn that doing nothing at this point is too dangerous.

A bill on climate change triggered a walkout by Republicans in 2019, causing Senate President Peter Courtney to ask Gov. Kate Brown to order state police to find them and return them to the Capitol. A modified version of the 2019 bill was reached after Democrats negotiated with some Republicans, but wasn’t enough to avoid the current walkout.

“Here it goes again,” Courtney said in an interview. But this time, he isn’t asking for state police intervention and believes Republican lawmakers may have already fled the state, out of reach of the state troopers.

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“Our state police, and there are very few, cover crime, they cover forensic labs, they cover traffic, they cover drugs,” he said. “I don’t want them running around the state of Oregon, trying to find a bunch of elected officials who won’t come to work.”

Protesters of the bill — most of them from rural areas and working in trucking and logging industries — recently held a demonstration at the Capitol with trucks blowing horns. Those in favor of the bill rallied on a different day, saying there is a climate emergency and that Oregon must do its share by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and promoting a transition to green energy.

Those on both sides have jammed into the Capitol for public hearings. Opponents say the plan to charge polluters for carbon credits would raise fuel costs for consumers.

On Tuesday, the Capitol was much quieter. The absence of the GOP senators and representatives prevented a quorum in either chamber. The climate bill is stalled in the Senate and other legislation has piled up during the 35-day legislative session.

A lone truck driver drove by on the street outside, leaning on his horn, as Courtney tried to think of a way out of the impasse.

“I don’t have one right now,” said the longest-serving legislator in Oregon history. “I’m brokenhearted because I think the legislative branch of government is greatest of all branches … and I respect it so much that when things don’t go right, I’m thinking you don’t have enough magic dust, you don’t have enough rabbits in hats, you’ve got to figure this out.”

Oregon House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner said Democrats have worked in good faith with Republicans to find compromise on carbon legislation.

“The reality is, in today’s Republican party run by Donald Trump, nothing will ever be enough for them,” Smith Warner said. “Republicans need to come back to work and do the job Oregonians elected them do.”

The absent Republican lawmakers issued statements Wednesday accusing Democrats of running roughshod over them and insisting the climate issue be brought before voters.

“The House Republicans have been marginalized,” said Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, a Republican from Salem. “Republican legislators have pleaded repeatedly with our Democrat colleagues to refer cap and trade legislation to the voters.”

Having voters decide the fate of environmental legislation is no slam dunk for Democrats. In neighboring Washington state, also a Democratic stronghold, voters in 2018 rejected a tax on carbon emissions in what was then the costliest initiative fight in state history.

In Oregon, the current cap-and-trade bill calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to at least 45% below 1990 emissions levels by 2035 and to at least 80% below by 2050. The bill would force big greenhouse gas emitters to obtain credits for each metric ton of carbon dioxide they emit. Opponents say fossil fuel companies will wind up offloading increased costs to customers.

Democrats, in negotiations with Republicans, modified the 2019 bill by splitting the state into three geographic zones that would be phased in separately for rules that would likely increase gas and diesel prices, with Portland being affected first, then other large urban areas, and finally rural regions. That approach was designed to address concerns that last year’s failed measure would have disproportionately affected rural communities.

”We frankly have a bill now that’s probably a minimum viable product in terms of the environmental community because of the compromises,” Nik Blosser, the governor’s chief of staff, said in an interview.

Other concessions were made.

“To have engaged Republicans in that process and to have them basically just walk out again and shut down the government is just really disappointing,” Blosser said.

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AP writer Chris Grygiel contributed from Seattle.

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