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Fear over denial of a quorum during short session sparks murmurs of referring a constitutional amendment to state voters

By Sam Stites

Oregon Capitol Bureau reporter

The next session of the Legislature is expected to begin the way the last one ended, with a dramatic clash between Democrats and Republicans over the future carbon emissions.

State Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) is reworking a proposal to create a cap-and-trade program in Oregon for consideration by legislators when they convene in February. And he's aiming political pressure at Senate Republicans who walked out of the 2019 session in a move that killed consideration of House Bill 2020. Dembrow was one of the chief architects of that legislation, which would have limited greenhouse gases, created tax incentives for industry and possibly generated millions to be used for environmental programs.

In the four months since the 2019 session ended, Dembrow and his colleagues have worked to strengthen their proposal against Republican rebuke. He isn't ready to share details and worries that Republicans may repeat in February their no-show approach to keep the Senate from acting.

"Until we fix the quorum requirement, it may not be possible for us to address climate action in the Legislature," he said.

'Wild allegations and misinformation'

Legislators may feel pressured to act in the face of three ballot measures being proposed by the environmental advocacy group Renew Oregon. The group said it intended to submit several thousand signatures on Nov. 13 as a step toward putting before voters the elements of the 2019 legislation. Such a tactic would sideline opponents from a role in crafting Oregon's program.

As proposed earlier this year, the cap-and-trade program would restrict the amount of carbon dioxide that businesses in certain industries — such as transportation, energy and fossil fuels —are allowed to emit. It would require an 80 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

Under the law, business would buy allowances for every ton of greenhouse gas they emit more than permitted. The state would make fewer credits available over time with the intention of requiring businesses to pollute less.

Opponents argue the program would put undue pressure on Oregon's rural economies by causing higher fuel costs and lost jobs.

Dembrow is working on changes to the bill that would provide more clarity and certainty around investments and economic impacts "to address the wild allegations and misinformation about cost impacts that were distributed via social media," he said.

One such piece of misinformation was the claim that gas prices would rise to $5 a gallon in the first year of the program, Dembrow said. Projections from the state analysts show gas rising by around 21 cents in the first year of the program and approximately $3 by 2050.

The idea behind the revisions is to make more Oregonians and businesses comfortable with how the program works and its potential benefits.

Dembrow said he wants to clarify how the program would actually work. He's working with "people on the ground" in rural districts to help voters to understand the harmful effects of climate change. He's hoping those open to climate action policy will then convince their neighbors and community that long-term action is needed.

Social media campaigns targeting rural voters and even a short documentary explaining how cap and trade policy works are expected to be rolled out in the coming month.

Dembrow wouldn't go into more specific detail about what industries and groups he's working with to perfect the proposal, calling it "delicate situation." He's hopeful that getting information out to voters of the districts of the 11 Republicans who walked out in June would hold them accountable to show up to work in February and stay there.

A public backlash?

But it seems unlikely that Dembrow and his colleagues will find a middle ground to work with Republicans and keep them in the capitol if cap-and-trade is on the agenda again.

State Sen. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) said there was no change that could be made that could get him to vote for cap-and-trade.

"The reason has to do with the poisoning of the well by virtue of the unsuccessful attempt to pass it this previous session," Bentz said. "I think the focus should be on carbon policy that has nothing to do with pricing carbon, and everything to do with addressing CO2 reduction using tools already available, and we have a lot of them."

He pointed out federal tax credits already exist to address some carbon issues.

Democrats worry that Senate Republicans might not show up in February, denying Democrats a quorum and from accomplishing anything ahead of what is expected to be an important election for both parties next fall.

"The walkout was only used as a vote blocking device because of the incredibly egregious nature of these bills and concepts," Bentz said. "I don't think people understand how overreaching HB 2020 was. I don't think they get it."

He said that if Democrats refer a constitutional amendment to voters changing Oregon's quorum requirement, he won't stand in the way.

The Oregon Senate requires two-thirds of senators be present to act. There has been talk of changing that to a majority, which would allow the Democratic-controlled Senate in the current lineup to proceed without Republicans.

Bentz expects a public backlash to such a change. "That's exactly what people are supposed to do when they see the majority overreaching. They need to step up and say no," he said. "Now if that tool is taken away by the people of Oregon, or a majority of them, then so be it. But there are going to be other ways people will express their dissatisfaction with the majority."

Gov. Kate Brown told reporters last week that she expects Senate Republicans to show up in February the same as she expects that from Democrats. "They made a decision to run for the Legislature and I expect them to show up and do their jobs," she said.

Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger (R-Grants Pass) said he believes the short session shouldn't be used to undertake big policy programs like cap and trade, rather budgetary fixes and minor legislative tweaks. He also said it's too early to discuss whether Republicans would use the denial of quorum as a tactic in 2020.

For Dembrow, he's not confident that a cap-and-trade proposal in 2020 would withstand the feverish pressure Republicans will surely get from their base in an election year.

Although he's excited to see others take up the work he and his colleagues are pushing to get done in February, he's doubtful whether it will help Democrats in their pursuit of climate action.

"In some ways (these measures) could lead to quicker, stronger action than legislative action," he said. "Will they help move Republicans to allowing a climate bill to be considered in February? I don't know."

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