Oregon Republicans are hiding — literally — rather than vote on a climate bill

Posted at 8:24 AM, Jun 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-25 11:59:33-04

For the last week, Republican members of the Oregon state Senate have been in hiding, fleeing the state rather than be forced to vote on a climate bill that would put a hard cap on greenhouse gas emissions. The goal? To run out the clock until the legislative session ends at the end of the month, robbing majority Democrats — and the Democratic governor — of a major priority.

How did we get here? Will the Republicans return? And is running away and hiding an effective way to deal with legislation you don’t like? For answers, I reached out to Hillary Borrud, the state politics and government reporter at The Oregonian. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

Cillizza: How did we get here? Was this fight — and the hiding — something that had been boiling for a while? Or did it just explode out of nowhere?

Borrud: This climate bill was the biggest Democratic priority left to pass before the end of the legislative session, and there were rumors at least a week before the walkout that Republicans might go on another boycott.

We knew Republicans were fiercely opposed to Democrats’ plan to cap carbon emissions: it was on a list of bills they wanted to kill during thefirst walkout of the 2019 session in May, which centered on Democrats’ plan for a new business tax.

As part of the deal Gov. Kate Brown (D) negotiated to end that walkout, Republicans say they were supposed to get more input on the climate bill. Now there’s finger-pointing, with both sides accusing each other of breaking different parts of that agreement

Cillizza: As you detail in your terrific explainer, this hide-out strategy has happened twice before in state history. What does how things got resolved last times(s) explain (or not) about how this one ends?

Borrud: There were two similar incidents in the last 20 years, plus the walkout earlier this session.

In 2001, Oregon House Democrats who fled the Capitol were able to foil a Republican redistricting plan simply by waiting roughly a week until it died. They had the advantage of a Democrat, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, in the governor’s mansion, so they didn’t have to worry that he would send the state police after them and some or all of them remained in Oregon.

A Senate Republican walkout in 2007 was resolved more quickly. The GOP denied Democrats a quorum in an effort to stop a Democratic proposal to divert corporate tax refunds to a rainy day fund, and the governor sent state troopers to bring back two senators from an Oregon State University baseball game. But the police didn’t end up hauling the lawmakers off, because they only needed one more senator in that case and a different Republican volunteered to return to the Senate floor.

In May, Democrats opted not to involve the state police because of the tensions it would raise during negotiations.

Cillizza: How big an issue is this hide-out for the average voter in the state? Are they aware of what happening and following it all or no?

Borrud: I haven’t seen polling on this so the only way I can answer this is anecdotally. But our readers are definitely following this story closely, as are my family and friends. Interest groups are also making sure voters hear their take on what’s unfolding, with ads on the radio urging them to call the absent senators’ offices and social media messaging.

Cillizza: Who are the key legislators we need to watch to get a sense of where this is all headed?

Borrud: Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr. is the Senate Republican leader, and he’s been talking with the top Democrat, Senate President Peter Courtney. On the Republican side, Sen. Cliff Bentz is their go-to negotiator on climate and energy issues — he’s a lawyer with experience working in the energy sector. Key Democrats involved are the climate bill’s champions, Rep. Karin Power — also a lawyer, for an environmental nonprofit — and Sen. Michael Dembrow, a retired professor who has focused on environmental legislation.

Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “On July 4, the status of the climate bill in Oregon will be ______.” Now, explain.

Borrud: “Dead.”

As we noted in our story on Monday, even political insiders don’t know how this will end so I wouldn’t bet money on this outcome or any other.

But Republicans have been enjoying the national attention this has generated and their singular focus on the climate bill likely makes it difficult to strike a deal on other issues, such as money for special projects in their districts or killing other bills. If they stay away through June 30, the bill will die.

Democrats have likewise insisted if they further water down the climate plan, it could become meaningless. Also, it’s clear that Democrats have the votes in their own caucus to pass the climate bill. One Democrat, Sen. Betsy Johnson, tends to vote with Republicans on similar climate legislation that’s opposed by industry, and Democrats need 16 of their 18 caucus members to vote “yes” to pass this bill.