SALEM — Election Day sent a mixed message to Oregon environmentalists.
Democrat Kate Brown was elected governor, and Democrats increased their majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. All good news for the Clean Energy Jobs proposal that would cap carbon emissions on the state’s top 100 polluters and use the estimated $700 million in fees generated for “green” jobs creation and other initiatives.
But across the Columbia River, in neighboring Washington, that same night, voters soundly defeated I-1631, an initiative which would have instituted the first carbon emissions tax in the nation. It was the most expensive initiative campaign in the state’s history.
Opponents, led by oil companies BP America and Phillips 66, were the largest contributors of the $32 million raised in opposition to I-1631. Its supporters raised $15 million. Opponents portrayed the initiative as an energy tax that would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher costs.
Could the same thing happen in Oregon?
Like most things in politics, the answer is maybe.
The odds are good that proponents of the Clean Energy Jobs bill have the political will and muscle to get a bill through the Senate and House and likely gain Gov. Brown’s signature. It would then become law.
However, the state constitution allows opponents of a law to gather signatures to require voter approval of the law, called a referendum.
If enough signatures are collected, the law would not go into effect until the vote. Normally, that would be the next general election, so a bill passed in 2019 would be on hold until a vote in November 2020.
Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby, a critic of previous carbon cap proposals, said a ballot box challenge is an option. He is also concerned Democratic leaders could pass the bill as an emergency measure, meaning it would take effect immediately.
“A referendum is possible — unless they put an emergency clause in the legislation,” Olsen said. “The bill will take three years to implement — but they still may do it.”
In some circumstances, the Legislature has also called an earlier special election on issues where it believes time is of the essence.
Proponents say polls have repeatedly shown a majority of Oregon voters are in favor of the concept of a carbon cap program.
Brad Reed, spokesman for Renew Oregon, a coalition of environmental activists and their allies, said proponents know the oil industry and others will likely go after whatever law might be passed. They believe their best defense is a strong law that, even if challenged, would win voter approval.
“Our coalition’s focus will be devoted entirely to making sure this year’s version of the Clean Energy Jobs bill is as good or better than previous years — with a strong cap to reduce climate pollution and significant investment in clean energy projects statewide to create jobs, protect clean air and save money on energy bills,” Reed said. “A great policy is easier to defend at the ballot, if it becomes necessary.”
The problem for advocates is that electioneering tends to boil down to sound bites.
Opponents of the Clean Energy Jobs bill say its mandates will drive up costs for emissions to produce petroleum and electricity, costs that will then be passed on to consumers. It’s the argument used during 2017 legislative hearings on a carbon cap-and-invest program.
“The cost of the program is ultimately paid for by our customers,” said Matthew Truax of the Oregon Fuels Association, testifying at the time. “Customers that deliver goods and provide services for all of us. Customers that manage fixed budgets and need to drive their children to school, go to the grocery store and the doctor.”
Barry Rabe, a professor in the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, said the Washington vote shows the political difficulty of carbon cap policies at the ballot box.
“Politically, this is hard if the effect is to impose an increased price on a commodity we all use — and we all know what we pay for a gallon of gas or a month of our electrical bill,” Rabe said.
If the electorate is progressive enough and the costs of the new mandates are used to improve the environment or create green jobs, studies have shown the political objective is easier to reach.
“But even in states with big Democratic majorities, it’s no lead pipe cinch,” Rabe said. “There are plenty of states where they are nowhere near a cap-and-trade policy, such as Illinois.”
Jim Moore, director of the McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University, said lawmakers can attempt to “bulletproof” their bill from a referendum.
“They would have to not just reach across the aisle to the other party, but get crucial buy-in from key businesses,” Moore said. “You have to get the right people, to cut off the supply of money that would fund a referendum.”
Moore said he expected a heated debate, even with one-party rule in the state.
“The House tends to be ‘let’s do it now, to heck with having people at the table,’” Moore said. “It’s up to the governor and the Senate to put the brakes on it. You want a bill that won’t just satisfy the base, but will stand the test of time.”
Brown has not said exactly what she wants in the carbon cap bill. But the governor has endorsed the idea of trying to head off a referendum. She said a model would be the 2017 transportation package, which was able to fight off defections from lawmakers and win bipartisan approval.
“We’ll have a consensus approach,” Brown said last week. “More in line with the transportation package. We have to have stakeholder buy-in.”
Moore said that seeking input doesn’t mean capitulating.
“Politics is compromise,” Moore said. “Having everyone at the table doesn’t mean everybody gets dealt the same number of cards to play. It’s not a 50-50 split. The Democrats have the most cards.”
Rabe, the University of Michigan professor, said taking a step forward on carbon emissions is the key.
“This isn’t a problem that is going to disappear in the future,” Rabe said. “You’re asking people to do something now and accept a sacrifice to make something better in the future. If you don’t, it is just going to cost more to do it later.”
Rabe said how things play out is of great interest around the country and the world.
“People are asking, “what about Oregon — what’s going on there?” Rabe said. “They’re watching.”
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org