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Oregon Senate Republican Leader: 'Nothing Is Off The Table' In Climate Fight

<p>State Sen. Herman E. Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

State Sen. Herman E. Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, in the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

The top Republican in the Oregon Senate said Wednesday that his members’ outlook on a proposed plan to fight climate change had not changed, raising the possibility Republicans could once again walk away from the Capitol this year to block the legislation.

Despite concessions made to opponentsin the latest version of the cap-and-trade proposal, Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, raised many of the same arguments he made during the 2019 legislative session: That the proposal would be too costly for Oregonians, and that the matter should be decided by voters.

“What’s changed?” Baertschiger said in a Wednesday press conference. “What has really changed in the bill? Not a lot.”

Baertschiger said he “would not speculate one way or another” whether his members would flee the Capitol this year over cap and trade, denying Senate Democrats the two-thirds quorum required to conduct business.

Last June, many Senate Republicans traveled to Idaho to evade capture by state police rather than allowing Democrats to bring the bill up for a vote. By the time they’d returned, Republican senators had won assurances the bill was dead.

“Nothing is off the table,” Baertschiger said.

The climate change fight promises to be the main event of the 35-day legislative session that convenes Feb. 3. Under the most recent cap-and-trade bill, the state would require the largest greenhouse gas emitters to obtain tradeable credits for each ton of emissions. At the same time, the overall amount of greenhouse gas emissions permitted by the transportation, manufacturing and utility sectors would be capped, and lowered over time.

But while that framework is unchanged from 2019’s House Bill 2020, the new proposal contains exemptions specifically aimed at critics.

Most meaningfully, the bill would regulate automobile fuels in the state’s cities, but potentially leave rural areas free from regulation. That would prevent rural communities from seeing the price of gas increase because of the program, a major objection raised by Republicans last year.

The new bill also is far more lenient on Oregon’s largest industrial emitters, many of whom employ people in rural communities and had warned of job cuts because of the cap and trade plan.

But while those concessions have risked the support of environmental groups, they have not budged Baertschiger. Asked repeatedly about changes to the bill, he argued a cap-and-trade scheme would still be too costly for Oregon families, because an expected rise in companies’ gas prices could be passed on to consumers.

“It always gets passed down to the average working family,” he said. “They don’t have any way to deflect it like corporations or companies do.”

Suggesting that no agreement was at hand between the two parties, Baertschiger said “maybe it’s just time for the voters to make the decision” on the November ballot.

The tug-of-war over a ballot referral is also a rerun from 2019, when Democrats refused to send HB 2020 to the ballot. At the time, they argued that it would take immense effort to get the program up and running by the target start date -- a process that would be delayed by anticipated law suits. Waiting for a public vote to proceed would lead to further delay, they said.

Baertschiger said Wednesday “there could be votes” among Republicans for a ballot referral on cap-and-trade. Pressed whether any of his members had indicated such support, he only replied: “We’ve had the conversation.”

Copyright 2020 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.