The failure of Democrats’ high-priority climate policy last week was a gut punch that left supporters disbelieving and bitter, denouncing Oregon’s runaway Republican senators for sabotaging “the Oregon Way” and the arrival of Trumpian, anything-goes politics in Salem.
The reaction was hardly surprising, given backers’ decadelong, Sisyphean struggle to push this policy up the hill, only to see it roll back down at the end of every legislative session.
But 2019 was supposed to be different. Democrats had a supermajority in both houses. The governor, House speaker and Senate president were all on board. Workgroups were established. A joint interim committee met. The governor had her own Carbon Policy Office. And backers had developed a broad coalition of advocacy groups.
This was the year for Oregon to enact the nation’s second economywide cap on greenhouse gases. Even Republicans acknowledged the inevitability.
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Republicans walked off the job. Violence was threatened. Still, it seemed, Democrats appeared to believe they upper hand and would only have to wait out the 11 missing senators.
Until Tuesday, when Senate President Peter Courtney conceded there weren’t enough Democratic votes to pass the policy either. “House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor,” he told his caucus of 18. “That will not change.” It was a declaration he apparently had not told Gov. Kate Brown or House Speaker Tina Kotek he planned to make.
How did the wheels come off?
Environmental groups are ladling the blame on Republicans, a corporate misinformation campaign funded by the Koch brothers and climate deniers, and, increasingly, on Courtney. They say they’re not giving in, but they’re incredulous that the new Democratic supermajority “wasn’t permitted to govern.”
“In the era of Donald Trump, there’s nothing that’s off the table,” said Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. “And that’s moving to Oregon.”
Beyond the recriminations, however, it’s clear lawmakers and advocacy groups made their own tactical missteps along the way.
In a session packed with high-priority bills, House Bill 2020 — the most complicated and controversial of them all — didn’t rise to the top. It was left until the eleventh hour, handing Republicans the perfect opportunity to block it. In the end, they failed to write a bill enough Senate Democrats would support — a fundamental failure after years of working to get the policy this far.
Environmental groups wanted to make Oregon a national example, passing the strongest bill possible. It’s true Democratic sponsors compromised with almost every industry — save the transportation fuel companies — to blunt the bill’s impact.
The bill’s sponsors also say they incorporated a broad spectrum of Republican suggestions in drafting the original bill and subsequent amendments. But key Republican committee members consistently said they were being shut out, with their substantive concerns ignored.
There also was no lead spokesperson for the policy outside the Willamette Valley, and no effective on-the-ground counternarrative to explain on how the bill could actually help rural Oregonians. Ultimately, Democrats may have overestimated Oregonians’ overall willingness to be at the vanguard of the fight on global climate change.
And, in the end, Democrats didn’t anticipate the sizable backlash from rural Oregonians, perhaps overconfident that their supermajority would deliver the necessary votes regardless.
Supermajority or not, Democrats came to the session with a passel of priorities beyond the climate bill: a business gross receipts tax to fund schools, pension reform, rent control, affordable housing and Medicaid taxes.
Backers original hope was to move HB 2020 early, precisely to avoid an end-of-session logjam. There was talk of having the climate bill on the governor’s desk for an Earth Day signing.
But in the hierarchy of interest groups and bills, labor and education advocates took priority over the environmental lobby. That pushed rent control, student success and a gross receipts tax to the front of the line, leaving legislators, lobbyists and interest groups cagey when it came to a sprawling new program that looked suspiciously like another large tax increase.
HB 2020 was a complex 180-page bill, one that eventually had more than 100 proposed amendments. Rewriting it to incorporate the first major round of changes — including deals Democrats cut with specific industries and interest groups — took weeks. And in the end, the bill didn’t land for a final vote in the Senate until 11 days before the constitutionally mandated close of the session.
Supporters say they had the support to pass HB 2020 if that floor vote had taken place. But that’s far from clear. There was late waffling in the Democratic caucus, and Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, who was drafted June 19 to help round up the strays, said it wasn’t just one or two.
“At one point, we had as many as five, maybe six (Democrats) who had serious reservations about it,” he said. “In the end, we ran out of time. There weren’t the votes there.”
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario and a co-chair of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction, spent the same day trying to make the case for a broader set of amendments. He complained that the original bill was drafted in meetings he was shut out of and that his substantive input was ignored during session, even as Democrats cut deals needed to placate various industry groups.
Either way, his last-minute negotiations weren’t fruitful, and it’s not clear there ever would be a deal acceptable to his caucus members. The timing gave them maximum leverage to run out the clock and kill the bill.
That’s exactly what they did.
Losing control of the narrative
Messaging around climate change is generally an uphill battle. Businesses, governments and voters tend to focus on what’s directly in front of them: immediate pocketbook impacts versus long-term threats. In economics, it’s called short-termism.
That challenge is particularly high in rural areas, where many residents feel their lifestyle and livelihoods have been under siege from “radical environmentalists” for decades. Opponents played up the urban-rural divide effectively, adopting the mantra that HB 2020, born of Multnomah County progressives, would be disaster for rural Oregon.
The bill’s supporters say what’s lost and ignored in that conversation is how the status quo also comes with major costs from increased drought, wildfire, polluted air, forest infestations, decreased snowpacks, ocean acidification, flooding, crop losses, economic disruptions. The list goes on.
By not acting now, they argue, those costs are compounding to the point of irreversibility. And, they say, the costs will fall disproportionately on rural Oregonians and their livelihoods.
“The challenge of this has always been to convince people they have to act immediately to prevent this because for so long the narrative has been this is a problem that’s 30 years away,” said Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon, a coalition of HB 2020 supporters. In fact, he said, the problem is here now.
“Either we make a hard and disruptive transition to clean energy or a hard transition to try and adapt to climate change. We are headed for unmitigated economic, health and societal disaster.”
Many supporters blame opposition to the bill on corporate climate deniers twisting facts to fan fears in rural Oregon. Big companies opposed to the bill have been major donors to Oregon lawmakers, and industry groups dumped money into a campaign that characterized the bill as a rural job killer, and one that would heap new costs on households.
But outside the Portland metro area, the concerns are rooted in past experience and feelings that urban architects of the policy don’t truly care about the consequences on their way of life.
The coalition of supporters never had an effective spokesperson to counter that. It certainly wasn’t Brown, who is not popular in rural parts of the state. And not a single Republican lawmaker representing those districts took up the mantle.
Perhaps the toughest needle to thread was convincing Oregonians they should serve as a catalyst in the global fight against climate change, bearing some immediate costs when the state’s actions will have a negligible impact on global emissions — and when some neighboring states are taking no action.
Republicans returned to that point again and again in the committee debates over the bill: Big businesses and valuable rural jobs would move to other states, Oregonians would pay higher costs, and for what?
In the end, that message galvanized their constituents.
The bill’s backers acknowledge the costs. They say the bill directed revenues from emission allowance sales in a way that would create rural jobs while also helping them adapt to climate change.
Money from the program’s climate investment fund, for example, would go to clean energy, energy efficiency and climate change adaptation programs. Revenues might help improve agricultural irrigation, for example, creating jobs and improving energy efficiency. Money would go to cleaning up forests, providing logging jobs and preventing wildfires.
In fact, 20% of the program’s Climate Investment Fund was reserved for natural and working lands, and another 40% for impacted communities. There were job training funds for communities most affected by global warming. And a significant chunk of the dollars raised for transportation projects would end up in rural communities.
That message apparently didn’t resonate in rural Oregon. Even during more than six hours of debate before the bill passed out of the House, Democratic lawmakers didn’t do much to defend the bill against a scorched-earth assault by Republicans.
“These misrepresentations went unchallenged, maybe because the (Democrats) figured they had the votes and didn’t need to drag out the debate,” said Angus Duncan, chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. “You do have to challenge a narrative that will otherwise start getting stuck.
“I’m concerned that if the prevailing narrative that comes out of this is that aggressive radical Portland legislators are declaring war on rural Oregon. If we’re talking about that, and not talking about climate, we will lose the debate.”
Backers have long suggested there is overwhelming support for their cap-and-trade program, dubbed the Clean Energy Jobs bill. But the picture is more nuanced, perhaps in important ways.
The environment is not typically one of voters’ top concerns. Jobs, the economy and health care all top that list. And while polls show Oregonians are broadly supportive of taking action on global warming, that support is sharply divided on partisan lines and dwindles markedly when you attach a cost.
In December, the bill’s supporters released a poll that showed 72% of Oregonians support a cap-and-trade program. But that program wasn’t fully described in the poll. And when respondents were asked if the policy should immediately be applied to oil companies if that meant “a small increase in fuel prices in the near term,” only 55% agreed.
John Horvick of DHM Research, which polls Oregonians on climate change every March, says the results have a far greater partisan split than along urban rural lines. He says polling shows that 85% of Democrats believe the state should do more to address climate change, and only 25% of Republicans. By region, the differences are less stark — 64% answered “yes” in the Portland metro area, 58% in the Willamette Valley, and 44% in the rest of the state.
Add in a cost to consumers and the support markedly declines, Horvick says.
Those kinds of numbers and the complexity of the policy don’t make backers optimistic about bringing a cap-and-trade system to the ballot. They can also look to Washington state, where two ballot measures on carbon taxes have failed.
“Opponents have so many opportunities to create fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Horvick said. “As a mercenary in this, I’d rather be in opposition than in support. I’m sure Democrats are looking up north and saying, ‘We don’t want to put this on the ballot.’”