SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday ordered the Oregon State Police to find 11 Republicans who have walked out on the Senate in a last-ditch bid to block a contentious carbon cap bill.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that the Senate Republicans would turn their back on their constituents,” Brown said.
But the GOP lawmakers may be out of the reach of state authorities. Predicting Brown would order the state police to find them, some Republicans say they have not only left the Capitol, but left the state.
“The governor had threatened sending the state police to arrest us,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. “That’s more dictatorship than democracy. We needed to be beyond their reach.”
Knopp said he had left Oregon but declined to say where he was.
“Let’s just say I’ve crossed a lot of big bridges the past two days,” Knopp said.
Knopp said drastic action was required to head off the vote on House Bill 2020. The legislation would cap carbon emissions and auction allowances that polluters could buy to offset each ton of carbon they release into the air. The cap would be lowered with the goal that by 2035, the state would emit about half of the 1990 pollution level. Advocates say it will lead to a transition to a prosperous greener, cleaner economy. Critics say it will lead to higher costs for fuels and hurt traditional Oregon industries such as farming and logging.
The bill passed the House on Monday after six hours of debate and was scheduled for a Senate vote on Thursday. That’s when Republicans started planning to get out of town.
“HB 2020 is so significant a policy and our only option left is this protest,” Knopp said.
Without the Republicans, the Senate does not have enough members present to create a quorum required to conduct business.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, formally requested Thursday that Brown send state troopers to find the absent Republican senators. Brown immediately agreed. Those who do not return by tomorrow will be fined $500 per day. Courtney, who was elected to the Legislature in 1980, called the events “the saddest day of my legislative life.” In a strained and sometimes mournful voice, Courtney pleaded with the Republicans to return.
“I beg and beseech my fellow legislators to come to the floor.” Courtney said. “I need you, the Legislature needs you, the people of Oregon need you to pass budgets, to take care of our citizens and their health, their education, their safety, their well-being. I cannot do it without you. We cannot do it without you.”
The Oregon State Police issued an unsigned statement Thursday saying it will carry out Brown’s order, citing the state statutes that give the governor power to take action.
“While we obviously have many tools at our disposal, patience and communication is and always will be our first, and preferred, option,” the statement said.
Democrats hold an 18-11 majority in the Senate, with one seat vacant since Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, died May 29. The Senate supermajority gives Democrats enough votes to pass policy bills that require a simple majority and revenue bills that require a three-fifths majority. GOP senators have little leverage to shape or slow legislation.
The Republicans have one weapon they can wield: the quorum. The constitution requires at least 20 of the 30 senators be present in order for legislation to be considered. The walkout effectively shuts down the Senate and has a ripple effect on House legislation still requiring Senate approval.
Senate Republicans want HB 2020 put on hold, or at least changed to include moderating amendments offered by Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose,who sides with Republicans on some issues. In Oregon, legislation cannot be amended on the House or Senate floor. Any revisions would require sending the bill back to a committee.
The walkout is the second by Senate Republicans during the 2019 session. In May, GOP lawmakers walked out in opposition to Brown’s signature initiative for 2019 — a $2 billion business tax package to boost funding for K-12 public education.
Democratic leaders decided against trying to force Republicans to return. Brown would not budge on the tax, but brokered a deal in which Democrats agreed to kill bills on mandatory vaccinations and gun control, which were opposed by many Republicans. In return, Republicans pledged to return to the Senate and not use tactics to slow or stop legislation. The tax for education was approved soon after.
Republicans say Brown broke the bargain by not honoring a promise to “reset” discussions on the carbon cap to include more input from lawmakers representing rural Oregon.
“There was no reset,” Knopp said. “If our voices are not heard and respected, we don’t have a constitutional obligation to stand by and provide a quorum while the majority from Portland rushes through a very inefficient and flawed bill.”
Brown pledged Thursday that there would be no new deal. Though the state Constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn no later than June 30, Brown said she would call a special session to begin July 2, if necessary.
In the meantime, Knopp said he and other Senate Republicans would stay on the move. Knopp said he hasn’t even told his family where he is going to be on any given day. For now, they will rely on social media to check in on each other.
“We’re going to have to get used to a lot of FaceTime,” Knopp said.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org