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Oregon Senate Republicans Walking Out (Again)

UPDATE (12:10 p.m. PT) — Oregon Senate Republicans have walked off the job, denying Democrats the ability to pass sweeping climate change legislation.

In response, Senate Democrats are vowing to fine absent lawmakers $500 a day, and Gov. Kate Brown has ordered state police bring Republicans back. 

"I’m begging you to come back," Senate President Peter Courtney said Thursday morning in an emotionally wrenching speech on the Senate floor announcing that he'd asked Brown to compel Republicans to return. "I don’t want to send the state police. I don’t. I don’t. I have no other choice. I have no other choice."

The governor immediately agreed, saying in a statement: "As the executive of the agency, I am authorizing the State Police to fulfill the Senate Democrats’ request. It is absolutely unacceptable that the Senate Republicans would turn their back on their constituents who they are honor-bound to represent here in this building."

Three Republican state senators confirmed early Thursday morning that many of their colleagues would be absent from the Capitol, at least temporarily preventing a vote on the plan to cap carbon emissions and charge polluters for their greenhouse gas production. At the same time, Republicans appear to be willing to supply at least two members to reach a quorum in the Senate in case a deal is struck.

“I can safely say that a significant portion of the Republicans will not be in the building today,” said Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who said he was in a position to be in the Capitol if needed. “That I can assure you is the case.”

Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, told OPB he planned to work remotely for a while and see what happened.

“I hope we can come to an agreement to postpone this vote,” Baertschiger said, declining to specify where his fellow members were. “I think that we need to be in a position, if we come to some terms, that we can give them a quorum.”

At issue is House Bill 2020, which would implement a wide ranging cap-and-trade system in the state similar to one that exists now in California. Republicans say the law would disproportionately impact their rural districts, raising gas prices and sending jobs across state lines. The bill passed the House earlier this week, and was scheduled for a final Senate vote Thursday.

The planned walkout follows another in May over a business tax for public schools that wound up being signed into law. After staying away from the Capitol for four days, Republicans struck a deal that resulted in the end of high-profile bills to tighten state laws regarding vaccines and gun control. Republicans also say they were given assurances they’d have meaningful impact on HB 2020 moving forward. In exchange, they agreed not to walk out for the rest of session.

Bentz said Thursday that Democrats had not held up their end of the bargain, and that his ideas for amending the cap-and-trade bill had been stonewalled.

The senator, Republicans’ central policy expert on the legislation, spent much of Wednesday in closed-door talks with the governor’s office. Bentz said he’d been asked to prepare a second, “companion” bill to HB 2020. It would be passed prior to the climate bill, and would institute some changes to the policy he thought were necessary.

“I have to hand it to the governor’s staff,” Bentz said. “They worked tremendously hard with me, from 10 in the morning to 8 at night ... trying to put together something that would satisfy the more liberal parts of the Democratic caucus.”

Bentz says his proposals surrounded how to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars HB 2020 would raise by charging polluters for each ton of greenhouse gas they emit. Currently, the bill has equity provisions that ensure some of the money would go to communities that might be disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Bentz says he supports relief for low-income households, but that one of his proposals involved getting “money out of social justice programs and instead direct it to transition. That means helping freight in particular.”

He also proposed a better deal for manufacturers, who he says should not be charged for carbon emissions if they are using the most clean technology available to them.

The state legislature is scheduled to adjourn June 30. This has been a largely successful session for Democrats, who control the governor's office and supermajorities in both chambers and have used that power to pass the new tax for schools and the nation's first in the nation rent control law. Cap and trade is the final big item on their ambitious to do list, but far from the only legislation imperiled if Republicans don't return. Other proposals that could die include a plan to promote denser development in many Oregon communities, paid family medical leave, a package of bills expanding legislative response to future sexual harassment complaints and whether to send a proposed cigarette tax hiketo voters. 

Lawmakers also have yet to pass major state agency budgets, including the Department of Education and the Department of Corrections. Legislators recently approved House Bill 5048, a continuing resolution, which would allow agencies to keep operating using the previous biennium’s budget. But that is a short-term solution. 

Questions swirled Thursday about what, precisely, Brown's order to state police meant — and whether troopers would go so far as to handcuff senators if they found them. Democrats have pointed to a provision in the Oregon Constitution that says legislators can be "compelled" to attend, along with a statute that says state troopers can be ordered to enforce the rules of any branch of government.

Oregon State Police addressed some specifics in a statement, saying it was using its relationships to have "polite conversation" with Republicans. 

"While we obviously have many tools at our disposal," the statement said, "patience and communication is and always will be our first, and preferred, option."

"I do not believe the state police will be able to find any of our members," said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. "So, instead of the Democrats putting efforts into finding bipartisan solutions, their answer is to waste state police resources to try and track down legislators and arrest them. It sounds more like a dictatorship than a democracy." 

Knopp said he will be traveling through at least three different states. 

Earlier this week, the governor announced she was preparing for a special legislative session the first week of July. Knopp said Republicans would return to the state Capitol for a special session to address budgets. 

"We stand ready and willing to pass any of the additional budgets and stand ready to pass the bills that relate to workplace harassment in the capitol but beyond that, I believe we're not open to any other policies," Knopp said. 

On the floor of the Senate Thursday, Courtney appealed to his colleagues in the GOP to remember their duty as elected officials. 

"This is the saddest day of my legislative life. Pure and simple, my heart is broken," he said. "When we are chosen to be a state senator or state rep, we are given, outside a spiritual calling, the most glorious, honorable, noble role that a citizen of this state can be given. ... If I am going to be chosen, I do not have the luxury of only talking to those who I agree with. I don't have the option to only negotiate with those I agree with. Rather, I have an obligation and a duty to work with people who also represent the people of this great state, no matter what."

OPB political reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this story.

<p>Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, asks questions during the Senate Judiciary Committee work session for House Bill 2625 on April 30, 2019.</p>

Kaylee Domzalski


Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, asks questions during the Senate Judiciary Committee work session for House Bill 2625 on April 30, 2019.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.