The final weeks of the 2019 legislative session made for some ugly politics.
In between Senate Republicans’ walkout and Democrats’ hobbling of Oregonians’ ballot-initiative power, partisan conflict metastasized — both in and out of Salem. Sine die, it seemed, marked the opportunity for legislators and Oregonians as a whole to break from the drama and hit the reset button.
That reset, however, has yet to occur. Frustrated by the death of a carbon cap-and-trade bill, Gov. Kate Brown announced last week that she may resort to executive orders to carry out some of the ideas and policies included in House Bill 2020. While Brown is right to continue pressing for carbon-pricing legislation, she should abandon any efforts to implement such controversial policies by fiat.
What Oregon needs most is thoughtful leadership that rallies people behind a common goal, not flexing of political muscle.
There’s already been far too much of that. Senate Republicans, mired in minority status, staged a walkout twice this session, fleeing the Capitol in order to deny the Senate a quorum. The first time, they disappeared to delay a vote on a new business tax for education, returning only after securing promises to kill two unrelated bills. The second time, they stayed out even longer, holding legislative operations hostage to block passage of HB 2020 which, they argued, would hit rural communities and their industries especially hard.
Their message, however, was soon drowned out after Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, warned that any Oregon State Police troopers sent to bring him back to Salem better be bachelors and “come heavily armed.” But such muscle flexing ultimately won’t help Republicans, despite the bill’s demise.
Boquist now faces a formal complaint in the Senate, as he should — there’s simply no conceivable defense for making such threats. And Republicans have handed Democrats a potent weapon in future elections.
Why should voters choose Republicans when they admit — twice in one session — that their only tool to effect change is a constitutional gimmick? While legislators must stand up for the interests of their constituencies, they also must let voters be the ones to hold lawmakers and their work accountable.
It should be noted that HB 2020 was not doomed by the Republicans’ no-show, but by three Democratic senators who ultimately decided that the legislation posed more pain than promise for their constituents.
That should resonate with Brown because Oregonians’ support or opposition doesn’t depend so much on whether they believe climate change is real. Rather, it’s how they weigh the difficult set of facts underlying any action to price carbon in Oregon.
Climate change is already having devastating effects on lives and livelihoods around the world, from intensifying wildfires to deadly heat waves and starving wildlife populations. Scientists have sounded the alarm that we are running out of time to stem the worst effects of climate change.
But Brown and leaders still need to acknowledge the tensions that make acting on that moral obligation harder to do.
Carbon pricing legislation is necessarily about inflicting economic pain on those engaging in acts of pollution in order to change behavior, whether it’s people driving gasoline-powered cars or farmers raising methane-belching cows. That uncomfortable reality becomes even trickier if options for changing behavior don’t exist or are exorbitantly expensive.
At the same time, Oregonians’ share of emissions is so tiny that even drastic reductions in Oregon would have nearly zero impact on national emissions, much less global. How should policymakers weigh the obligation to act for the common good versus the hit of a gas price increase of up to 72 cents a gallon in year one?
And while cap-and-trade legislation could fund breakthrough research that yields global benefits far beyond any reduction in Oregon emissions — perhaps the single best argument for enacting cap and trade — what’s the right level of investment versus devoting dollars to mitigate the harm felt by individuals?
As obvious a problem as climate change is, convincing people what to do, how much to do or even whether Oregon should do anything at all is far more complex.
To Brown’s credit, she said she will first push for a legislative solution before resorting to executive action. She is also directing her carbon policy office to work with rural manufacturers and transportation entities to figure out how they can meet emissions goals.
But this past session showed that even with a supermajority of Democrats, carbon pricing isn’t a slam dunk. Brown should not treat it as if it should be.