Student leaders with the lobbying group Renew Oregon, which helped craft landmark climate change legislation currently under debate in Oregon, pose to show their T-shirts after a news conference in Salem, Oregon, on June 20, 2019.
Photo: AP

A landmark climate change bill that appeared on the brink of passing the Oregon state legislature last week now seems to be dead.

The state’s senate was set to take up a vote on a cap-and-trade bill that would have used a market mechanism (favored by conservatives) to reduce carbon pollution when Republicans deserted their duties. All 12 Republican state senators absconded from Salem late last week or refused to appear at the statehouse. That sparked a state police manhunt, Republican senators sending not-so-veiled threats at police, and right wing militias throwing their support behind the senators. Rather than stay the course, five days after the debacle began and with the Republicans still MIA, state Democrats have caved.

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On Tuesday, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said the bill would not move forward because it did not have the votes. Details are still emerging, but the message this whole episode sends are pretty terrible.

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“There’s no strategy for what I’m about to say,” Courtney said announcing his decision in what may be the understatement of the century. “House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the senate floor.”

It’s not immediately clear what sparked Courtney’s decision to announce the bill didn’t have the votes, but Lauren Dake, OPB’s politics reporter, tweeted that “senators were visibly upset.” It’s indeed possible the senate no longer had enough Democratic votes to pass the bill, but outside groups who helped craft the bill and supported it called bullshit.

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“Senate President Peter Courtney said on the Senate Floor today there are not the votes to pass HB 2020,” Tera Hurst, executive director of Renew Oregon, said in a statement. “That is in direct contradiction to what 16 Senators told their constituents to their faces in recent days. This is the biggest failure of public leadership in Oregon in recent memory.”

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Democrats control a supermajority in Oregon’s statehouse and needed 16 of their 18 caucus members to vote yes for the bill to pass (it already cleared the house) and go to Governor Kate Brown’s desk. It would have been one of the strongest climate laws in the nation, regulating greenhouse gas emissions from across industries under a carbon market. The money it raised would have then been plowed back into protecting low-income communities as well as those affected by the transition to a clean energy economy.

Republican senators opposed it. As the minority, there was little they could do and so as an option of last resort, they packed up and left. That left the senate without a quorum to vote, and so Governor Brown dispatched the state police to look for them and started to organize a special session to vote on the bill should the Republicans not return before the end of the legislative session on June 30. Militias offered to “protect” senators from said police, and issued enough credible threats that the Oregon capitol shut down over the weekend at the recommendation of the state police commissioner.

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The whole thing represents a perversion of democracy. Democrats controlled supermajorities in both chambers of the state senate and the governorship. They did it by appealing to a majority of voters, giving them a mandate to pass their agenda. And on climate, it’s an agenda worth fighting for since time is short and a habitable planet is a terrible thing to waste. Instead of holding to those principles, they appear to be blinking in the face of Republican intransigence and veiled threats of violence by right wing extremists.

It’s possible Democrats are playing some 12 dimensional chess. Courtney didn’t outright say he had killed the bill. The Oregonian reports Republicans are suspicious this could be a ruse to bring them back to the Capitol, which seems like it’s giving Democrats too much credit. It’s also possible Democrats will introduce a more moderate version of the cap-and-trade bill. But if you think the lesson senate Republicans and its militia supporters have learned is to bargain, I’ve got a bridge from Portland to Salem I’ll sell you.

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The whole debacle has made it pretty clear that for the growing number of Republicans seemingly invested in addressing climate change, the party line is still to very much to oppose any meaningful progress. And by caving to the threat of violence and theatrics, Oregon Democrats just paved the way for more extremist responses to climate legislation. I’m sure this will end well.

Earther has reached out to Senator Courtney’s and Governor Brown’s offices and we will update this post if we hear back.

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