Oregon lawmakers are on the verge of passing a bill that would declare a climate emergency in the state and slash climate emissions by 2050.
But there’s one big problem: A Republican walkout, stretching into its second week, is denying lawmakers the opportunity to even vote on the bill. The year’s short legislative session ends Saturday night.
“I’m disappointed that Republicans in both the House and Senate have walked off the job,” Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, tweeted last week. “Good lawmaking comes from consensus and compromise. If you don’t like a bill, then show up and work to make it better. Or show up and cast your vote against it.”
As the Trump administration has aggressively rolled back climate legislation at the federal level, Democrat-controlled states, including Virginia, New Jersey, California, and Washington, have pressed forward with their own climate plans in recent years. But Oregon has struggled.
Despite Democrats securing a supermajority in the state in the November 2018 election, they have so far failed to secure new climate goals. A first attempt to pass a bold climate bill was thwarted last summer by Republicans fleeing the state, including one who reportedly threatened to fight any state trooper who tried to fetch him and bring him back.
Now a second attempt at passing a climate bill also seems doomed to fail at the hands of a Republican walkout.
Knowing they didn’t have the numbers to vote down the legislation, 11 of the 12 Senate Republicans walked out of the state capitol in Salem last week after the latest version of the climate bill passed out of committee. At least two-thirds of the senators must be present to vote on legislation, meaning there must be at least two Republicans even if all 18 Democrats show up. House Republicans later joined the protest.
According to Republicans, the current proposal would hurt Oregon businesses, especially the industries that are the backbone of rural parts of the state, like logging and agriculture. “This legislation will do more harm to hardworking Oregon families and small businesses than almost any other legislative proposal this state has seen before,” state Sen. Lynn Findley, a Republican, said in a statement shared with BuzzFeed News. “It unfairly and unnecessarily targets our already struggling agriculture, timber and natural resource communities.”
But Democrats and environmentalists accuse Republicans of being misleading, pointing to myriad changes made to the climate proposal since last year’s version.
The original climate bill from 2019 proposed declaring a climate emergency and mandating the state cut greenhouse emissions 80% by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. Moreover, the proposal would have set up a cap-and-trade program requiring companies to buy credits for their climate pollution, with the number of available credits going down over time. The money raised from the credits would then be funneled into programs aimed at boosting the state’s response and preparedness to climate impacts like more frequent and intense flooding, as well as helping the state transition to clean energy.
This time around, the proposal’s top-line goals have remained the same, including the emergency declaration and 2050 target, but there are far more exemptions built in for rural communities and specific industries.
“I think that what got started when [Republicans] walked out the last time, they got a lot of support from constituents. And that same constituency — I don't know that they’ve kept track of what the changes have been and there hasn’t been a lot from my Republican colleagues to explain that to them,” state Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Democrat from a rural western district, told BuzzFeed News.
Roblan was one of a few Democrats who did not support the climate bill last year. But he has since come around, in part by helping secure alterations that appeased the concerns of certain industries and voters. “It’s frustrating to me,” Roblan said about the ongoing walkout.
One of the groups most vocally opposed to the latest climate bill is new to the political scene: a self-organized group called Timber Unity, which is largely comprised of truckers, loggers, and others from rural parts of the state. The group has also attracted some extremist supporters to its rallies, including members of the far-right militia Three Percenters. Timber Unity formed last year following a surge in grassroots organizing against the original climate bill, and its eventual success in helping sink the bill resulted in an invitation to the White House by President Trump.
In early February, at the start of Oregon’s legislative session, Timber Unity held a rally that attracted thousands of people holding signs like “Rural lives matter” and “Plant more trees and less government.” The rally featured some of the Republican politicians most opposed to the climate legislation.
Timber Unity did not respond to a request for comment. But in the group’s prerecorded voicemail for its media line, Angelita Sanchez, a spokesperson and board member, said: “Timber Unity does not believe that we can reduce carbon emissions by taxing working families.”
With the fate of the climate bill hanging in the balance, Oregonians for Clean Air, a coalition of environmental groups, is forging ahead with alternate plans. The group aims to get pro-climate measures on the state ballot in November, including one to have the state run on 100% clean electricity and another to cut climate emissions across all sectors, not just electricity.
“After the collapse last year of the legislative process, Oregonians could not depend on that alone,” said Brad Reed, spokesperson for Renew Oregon, one of the groups in the coalition. “So we’ve made a lot of contingency plans with the number one goal being climate action in 2020, one way or another.”