What’s Going on with Oregon’s State Legislature?

Oregon’s state capitol (Reuters)

Oregon’s state legislature imploded last week after eleven Republican state senators — the entire minority caucus in the state senate — disappeared just moments before a vote on a cap-and-trade climate bill put forward by the Democratic majority.

The bill, called House Bill 2020, seems to have been effectively killed — for now. The disappearance of the Republican caucus has resulted in a failure to achieve quorum, said Oregon senate president Peter Courtney.

But the disappearance of the Senate Republicans set in motion a chaotic series of events which is still unfolding. Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat who was a major sponsor of the bill, authorized state troopers to track down the missing senators and bring them back to force a vote. As of this morning, many of the senators are said to be hiding out in western Idaho, which borders the rural eastern districts in Oregon that most of them represent.

The Republican caucus cited concerns about the effect of HB2020 on sectors of the economy which are heavily represented in their district. A report by the state’s Legislative Revenue Office said that the bill would “reconfigure much of the energy sector and the state economy” and that “any long-term program of this nature carries with it many uncertainties.”

By Governor Brown’s own admission, HB2020 would be more radical than almost any existing climate legislation in America. “This bill would have been historic for Oregon, historic for the country, and frankly, it would have been historic for the world,” she said in a press conference last week.

While a handful of states in the Northeast have regional cap-and-trade bills aimed at specific industries, Oregon would be only the second state to California to institute a statewide tax on carbon emissions.

The chaos in Oregon may be unique, but the Beaver State’s geographical polarization is familiar. In many states, Democratic politicians from densely populated, progressive cities are gaining power thanks to urban population growth, only widening the divide between their priorities and those of their Republican colleagues from more-rural areas. In the six-hour debate over the bill in the state house, Republican legislator Kim Wallan mused that the entire issue had become split along lines divided between the urban “woke” voters who favor the bill and the rural “rubes” who don’t.

That polarization naturally leads to fights over climate policy. Washington, which shares a border with Oregon and has similar geographical divisions, has also had its fair share of pique over a proposed carbon tax. Progressive lobbyists in the state have gotten carbon-tax legislation on the ballot twice — 2016 and 2018 — only to be shot down by voters in both instances.

In the past year, Democratic majorities in New York, California, Nevada, Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, and Washington have passed sweeping legislation aimed at reducing carbon emissions in their states. In Oregon, at least, state Republicans remain defiant — for now. In response to Governor Brown’s threat to force him back to the Capitol for a vote, Senator Brian Boquist dryly remarked: “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s that simple.”

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