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Oregon's Major Climate Change Proposal Clears Final Committee

<p>Hundreds of people protest in favor of cap-and-trade legislation at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Oregon, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. The bill&nbsp;aims to limit carbon emissions.</p>

Dirk VanderHart

Hundreds of people protest in favor of cap-and-trade legislation at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Oregon, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. The bill aims to limit carbon emissions.

A sweeping proposal for sharply curbing Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades is headed to a vote on the House floor.

In a brief hearing Wednesday, the Legislature’s full budget committee passed House Bill 2020 out on a 13-8 partyline vote. The bill would institute a cap-and-trade program in the state beginning in 2021, and gradually reduce emissions until 2050.

The vote was significant. Roughly a decade after policymakers first began thinking about putting a price on emissions, Democrats’ most detailed proposal for doing so is within two votes of becoming law.

That doesn’t mean it is clear of challenges. In recent days, lobbyists for manufacturing companies have exerted pressure on Democrats to pull support from the bill. And in a move clearly meant to send a signal, backers of an effort to revoke a new tax for schools announced a $1 million contributionshortly after the vote. Capitol sources say the group has offered to pull back on the referral effort if key lawmakers would abandon the cap-and-trade bill.

Still, Wednesday’s hearing was brief and relatively free of rancor. It also included an atypical participant — Senate President Peter Courtney appeared at the hearing in the place of fellow Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, an avowed opponent of the proposal.

Republicans began the meeting with a last minute gambit, putting forward amendments that had been shot down in a subcommittee the day before.

State Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, offered a set of changes Johnson had proposed at the behest of industrial opponents to the bill. He painted that amendment as a “common ground,” though the state’s Carbon Policy Office, which has helped to craft the bill, has said it would tank the program.

“We can choose unity and to move forward together, or we can double down on division,” McLane said, shortly before his amendment was defeated along party lines.

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, made his third unsuccessful effort in as many meetings to have an emergency clause stripped from the bill.

The clause ensures the bill would take effect when it’s signed by Gov. Kate Brown, rather than three months after the end of legislative session. But it would also prevent opponents from gathering signatures to refer the law directly to the ballot. Republicans have argued that denies voters their fundamental rights.

"Because of the vastness of what this bill is going to do to the state of Oregon, Oregonians themselves should have the ability to weigh in,” said Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass. Baertchiger, a committed opponent of the bill, added later that instituting a cap-and-trade was like “rolling the dice.”

“Whether it will be positive or negative, I can’t tell,” he said. “None of us at this dais knows how this is going to play out.”

Democrats have argued a referendum would freeze progress on getting a cap-and-trade program established by its 2021 start date.

The committee finally passed the bill out along party lines. It could see a vote in the House as early as Friday, though it appears more likely to come up next week.

If passed, HB 2020 would place a cap on most of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, and lower it over time. Major polluters regulated under the plan — including fuel importers, manufacturers and utilities — would have to purchase credits for every ton of greenhouse gas they emit. Many would receive at least some credits for free, and companies could trade pollution credits among themselves.

Backers of the proposal said it creates a flexible, assured way for the state to lower emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. While California has a similar plan in place, proponents say Oregon can chart a course for other small states. Opponents say the program will be too expensive, and that its impact on global emissions will be minuscule.

Groups on both sides immediately sent out reactions to Wednesday's committee vote.

"We have an enormous opportunity to forge a new path on state-level programs to address [climate change]," Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. "Oregon can be the log that breaks the jam nationally."

Preston Mann, of the opposition group Partnership for Oregon Communities, called the bill "broken." 

“HB 2020 is a disaster for Oregon, plain and simple," Mann said. "We urge lawmakers to consider alternative proposals that would establish a comprehensive cap-and-trade program while minimizing the risk of economic harm.” 

Not long afterward, Mann sent out an email on behalf of another opposition group, Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce. It announced that the group had leveraged a $1 million check from logging company president Robert Freres Jr. The money will be spent attempting to undo a $1 billion a year business tax meant to fund K-12 schools. 

While HB 2020 passed comfortably Wednesday, there were signs of a potentially fraught road ahead. Coos Bay Democrat Arnie Roblan said he was supporting it merely as a courtesy.

“I have made a decision today that I will vote ‘yes’ to get it out, but I reserve the right to be a ‘no’ on the floor,” said Roblan, who played a key role in passing the new business tax opponents are threatening to refer. “I really have some other issues and conversations that I need to have.”

Another senator who’s voiced doubts, Portland Democrat Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward, also voted to pass the bill on, but did not comment on her feelings on the proposal. In a tweet last week, the budget committee co-chair expressed support for the concept, but said she’s concerned about “administrative complexity.”

Assuming Republicans and Johnson stand firm against the bill, Senate Democrats can only afford to lose one more vote.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.