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Oregon Secretary Of State Bev Clarno Rejects Clean Energy Proposals

Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Saturday, April 27, 2019.
Bradley W. Parks
Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno on the campus of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Secretary of State Bev Clarno has rejected two proposed ballot measures that would force Oregon to transition to carbon-free sources of electricity in the next 25 years.

Setting up a second potential conflict with environmental groups, Clarno ruled Thursday that the two proposals violated a constitutional requirement that they stick to a “single subject.”

“Both measures speak for themselves, if read carefully, that the issues presented are not limited to a single subject,” Deputy Secretary of State Rich Vial said of Clarno’s most recent ruling. “The secretary has the responsibility to make that constitutional decision.”

That’s the same controversial rationale Clarno used earlier this year when she rejected three separate proposals aimed at protecting state forests. In that instance, her decision led to an unsuccessful court challenge from environmentalists that is currently being appealed.

"There is now a pattern of flagrant abuse of power by this secretary of state, far outside the norms for any Democrat or Republican who has held the office,” said Tera Hurst, executive director of the group Renew Oregon, which is backing the rejected clean energy measures. “The secretary of state is siding with the oil industry, corporate polluters and anti-worker special interests to block the ability of the voters to decide their clean air future."

The two proposals Clarno rejected Thursday, initiative petitions 48 and 49, are seen as a backstop Renew Oregon and its allies can turn to if Oregon lawmakers fail to regulate greenhouse gas emissions next year.

If passed by voters, the measures would require Oregon to source all of its electricity from carbon-free or renewable energy sources by 2045. That’s a standard Hawaii and at least six other states have adopted since 2015.

But the petitions also include a number of provisions that opponents argue make them too broad. Both IP 48 and 49 require that construction projects related to the new standards pay a prevailing wage, offer benefits and meet a number of other benchmarks. IP 49 also requires electric utilities to invest in “beneficial electrification programs” that help the state meet its emissions reduction goals.

In comments on the proposals, opponents Willis Van Dusen and Janet Steele said they “include extensive new labor practice requirements likely appealing to members of the proponents’ voting coalition who otherwise might not support the measure.” The provisions violate a constitutional requirement that initiative petitions deal with “one subject only,” they argued.

Clarno evidently agreed, though Vial would not give specifics about her decision.

The rulings mark the second time Clarno has tossed initiative petitions based on her reading of Oregon’s “single subject” requirement.

When she rejected the three forest-related proposals in September, the decision was questioned by both environmentalists and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who made clear she didn’t agree with Clarno’s strict interpretation of the law.

However, when petitioners challenged the decision, a Marion County judge ruled that Clarno was correct. That ruling is being appealed, and attorneys for the Oregon Legislative Assembly say it could have major implications for Oregon’s legislative process  if upheld.

It’s unclear whether Rosenblum’s office agreed with Clarno’s rationale for tossing the clean energy proposals. Vial declined to say Thursday what advice the secretary had received from the state Department of Justice, though he said DOJ attorneys “discussed the matter” with her prior to the decision.

Renew Oregon and its allies were unsparing in their criticism of Clarno's ruling Thursday, issuing a lengthy release in response. 

"Until this election cycle, the single subject rule has rarely, if ever, been used to reject a proposed initiative," ballot measure attorney Margaret Olney said in the release. "By ignoring the analysis of the Attorney General, Legislative Counsel, the Oregon Supreme Court and inserting an exceptionally partisan review into a previously unbiased process, Secretary of State Clarno is undermining our initiative process and crippling the power of Orgonians to take their concerns directly to the voters.”

Renew Oregon and others filed IP 48 and 49 in early October. They also filed a third petition, IP 50, that would force Oregon to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from “fossil fuel and industrial sources.” IP 50 is arguably the most potent of the three petitions, and was approved by the secretary of state’s office, Vial said.

The three proposals amounted to something of a threat. Renew Oregon and its allies have made clear they will put their full energy into landing the initiatives on the ballot if lawmakers don’t pass a bill to regulate emissions in the legislative session that begins in February.

A bill that would have charged large emitters for their greenhouse gas output and reduced Oregon’s emissions over time failed to pass the Legislature earlier this year. Democrats have been clear they will bring back similar legislation in 2020.

“The ballot measures are one way of changing that landscape,” Renew Oregon spokesman Brad Reed said in October.

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.