Cliff Bentz

Senate Republicans Might Reprise Their Walkout Strategy in 2020

The 2019 Oregon legislative session was jolted by two Senate Republic walkouts that wound up deep-sixing three separate bills, including cap-and-trade legislation. Could another walkout occur in the 35-day 2020 legislative session? Maybe. (Photo Credit: Justin Katigbak/Willamette Week)

The 2019 Oregon legislative session was jolted by two Senate Republic walkouts that wound up deep-sixing three separate bills, including cap-and-trade legislation. Could another walkout occur in the 35-day 2020 legislative session? Maybe. (Photo Credit: Justin Katigbak/Willamette Week)

Oregonians, politicians and the news media are still buzzing about the nine-day Senate GOP walkout just before adjournment of the 2019 legislative session. The question now is whether another walkout could happen in the short 2020 legislative session that starts next February if Democrats try again to pass a cap-and-trade bill.

The 12-member Senate GOP caucus staged two walkouts in the 2019 session. The first one, in protest of the $1 billion Student Success Act, didn’t stop the bill they protested, but did sink two other major pieces of legislation dealing with gun regulations and vaccination exemptions.

The second, longer walkout was aimed at sidetracking the cap-and-trade bill. It succeeded. Senate Republicans returned to the Capitol with just enough time to pass budget bills and a few Democratic priority bills before the June 30 midnight deadline. No special session was needed.

Republican leaders rationalized their walkouts as their only way to counter the Democratic supermajority that controlled the Senate 18-12. The walkouts denied Democrats the 20-member quorum required to conduct a floor session, delaying as many as 100 Senate floor votes.

The walkouts drew national media attention, in part because of comments by Senator Brian Boquist that were construed as physical threats. While legislative Democrats and Governor Brown were fuming over the walkout, there appeared to be a fervent wave of support from rural Oregon.

Immediately after sine die of the 2019 legislative session, Brown vowed not to give up on cap-and-trade legislation, even if she had to resort to executive action. Her post-session speech may have increased the odds of a Senate Republican walkout next year. 

Oregon has seen legislative walkouts before. When she was the Senate Democratic Leader in 2001, Brown expressed support for a walkout by House Democrats to protest the way majority Republicans were addressing legislative redistricting. But previous walkouts were more like expressions of discontent than strategic parliamentary maneuvers. Senate Republicans have suddenly discovered they have power they didn’t realize they possessed. Democrats made the same discovery, but belatedly.

What happens next on cap-and-trade, as well as other Democratic priorities, may determine the likelihood of a walkout in the 2020 session. The potential of a walkout in a constitutionally limited 35-day session is its own political deterrent. During a short session, timelines are compressed and a similar nine-day walkout would cripple the Capitol and the ability to accomplish any major priority.

Political commentators tend to focus on the power of majorities in legislatures and in Congress. They overlook the power of minorities, especially ones led by people who can count heads, know the rules and keep their ranks in line. The congressional Freedom Caucus repeatedly demonstrated its power by extracting concessions from the previous House GOP leadership or forcing it to find the votes it needed in the Democratic caucus. Senate Republicans may be looking to do the same thing in the Oregon legislature. 

Without fear of re-election retribution and with the support of major campaign financial backers, Senate Republicans have few to zero roadblocks to employing their walkout strategy again. 

Democrats may have exhausted their ability to agree to more amendments that further water down House Bill 2020 without risking greater opposition from environmental advocates who disagree “something is better than nothing.” They could agree to send a version of cap-and-trade legislation to voters, which might take the issue off the table in the 2020 session.

In a piece from July 4, Oregon Capital Insider author Dick Hughes argued that "reflective listening" is needed by the Democratic supermajority if they hope to avoid a second Senate Republican walkout and rally of truckers, farmers and loggers in efforts to pass a new version of HB 2020 in the short session.

The reason the 2017 transportation package was successful, Hughes said, was that legislative leaders established a bipartisan process early on and developed ideas from both sides of the aisle. The measure received bipartisan votes and wasn’t referred to voters. 

Is there such a path forward for major carbon policy? Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, has dropped hints there is if Republicans are given a chance to influence the shape of the legislation. There isn’t a lot of productive time between now and the 2020 short session for a bipartisan reset. There may not even be a bipartisan appetite to try, which could make another walkout a distinct parliamentary possibility.


A Challenge and a Legacy Lie Ahead for Legislative Democrats

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

The Democratically controlled 2019 Oregon legislative session will address a “once in a generation” challenge to boost education funding by $2 billion and a potential legacy-making bill dealing with climate change.

Expectations are high heading into the session, which begins in January. Neither will be a cake-walk to achieve, despite Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Some of the complicating factors are:

  • Oregon lawmakers also have to find more than $800 million to sustain the state’s Medicaid program.

  • The Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is expected to grow by possibly as much as $4 billion, with no strategy in place to reduce it.

  • There are signs the US economic recovery is facing headwinds caused by an escalating global trade war, political unrest in Europe and a weakening economy in China.

Passing major tax legislation – and avoiding a referral to voters – is never easy, whether for schools or cleaning up the environment. For example, despite polls showing general support for climate legislation, Washington state voters have twice rejected carbon tax proposals. Oregon’s approach, which involves capping greenhouse gas emissions and allowing carbon trading in a state or regional marketplace, is different, but will still be cast by opponents as a tax.

Governor Brown has called her $2 billion challenge for education an opportunity that lawmakers can’t pass up because of the state’s robust economy and the needed Democratic votes in the House and Senate to approve tax bills. Brown also has called the Clean Energy Jobs bill “absolutely a legacy issue.”

Senate President Peter Courtney has endorsed the legacy label for the Clean Energy Jobs bill. "As a 75-year older person – you know I'm going to go to the children and grandchildren – I cannot think of a more serious issue," he said.

While it might be legacy legislation, it also has been introduced and failed to pass in the previous two legislative sessions. Part of the reason is its inherent complexity. Ted Sickinger filed a report for The Oregonian that outlined some of the complexity, which includes exactly what emissions will be capped and what emissions will be exempted.

In the 2019 session, advocates for the Clean Energy Jobs bill have apparently cut a deal with utilities that say their ratepayers are already footing the bill for greenhouse gas emission reductions baked into their future energy plans. Even that compromise isn’t without some debate over whether the utility plans should accelerate emission reductions. Timber and agriculture also may be exempted.

Another complicating factor is “leakage,” which boils down to manufacturing operations relocating to another state to avoid the cost of a cap-and-trade system. Republican Senator Cliff Bentz points to Ore-Ida Foods in Ontario. "I do not want to drive it 150 yards away into Idaho," Sickinger reported. "It will be devastating."

A report unveiled last week confirms Bentz’s fear that the potential for leakage in the manufacturing and industrial sectors is substantial, which if it happened to any degree would throw shade on the legacy of the legislation. “It would also eliminate a big chunk of allowance revenue [advocacy] groups are expecting to reinvest in carbon reduction and climate change adaptation programs,” Sickinger said. 

Rural interests have expressed concern that the increased price of fuel for cars and trucks will disproportionately hurt them at the pump. Then there is a constitutional question about whether any tax revenue collected from cars and trucks can escape the Oregon Highway Trust Fund. In anticipation of that question, Senator Michael Dembrow wants to include a provision to fast-track a challenge to the Oregon Supreme Court.

There is the need to put the program, if created, some place in the state bureaucracy. In her recommended 2019-2021 budget, Brown calls for elimination of the Department of Energy. She proposed creation of a new agency – the Oregon Climate Authority, which would assume the role of the existing Oregon Global Warming Commission. Creating a new agency and identifying who will sit on its advisory board can produce legendary backroom legacies.

Finally, in a system that involves carbon credits, you need a marketplace to trade them. Backers of the legislation and some industry groups favor linking the Oregon cap-and-trade program to the Western Climate Initiative, led by California. Bentz worries Oregon will be like a flea on a dog’s tail without much influence on the direction of the marketplace. 

Neither the $2 billion education challenge or the Clean Energy Jobs bill figure to be among the early bills to move in the 2019 session. Their destiny inevitably will be as part of 11th-hour legislative maneuvers to clear a path to adjournment, probably sometime next July. That’s often how legacies are born.



Steady Recovery Shadowed by Steady Decline

Oregon's economy continues its steady improvement, but rural economic fortunes reveal a steady, continuing decline as young workers head to the city to find good-paying jobs.The latest quarterly Oregon economic report didn't contain any splashy news, but it does reconfirm that many Oregonians, especially in rural areas, continue to slip on the U.S. economic treadmill.

The main message is that overall economic recovery — and the tax revenue it generates — is proceeding at a steady, if slower-than-hoped-for, rate.

The report also showed a steady downward spiral in the economic fortunes of poorer Oregonians and of Oregonians that may be tumbling out of the middle class s a result of the aftershocks of the last recession.

Nowhere is the steady decline more apparent than in rural parts of Oregon, according to state economists Mark McMullen and Josh Lehner. They say younger rural residents who are entering their prime earning years are choosing to move to urban areas to chase their fortunes. That, in turn, the economists explain, could lead to a death spiral for the areas they leave.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, said the exodus is already underway. He blamed federal and state natural resources policies for squeezing the life out of rural economies and leaving rural wage-earners with "nothing to do."

Jobs Bills in the Mix

In a short legislative session dominated by budget concerns and Governor Kitzhaber's ambitious reform efforts in health care, education and early learning, jobs bills have taken a back seat. But that doesn't mean they won't make it to the finish line.

There are major bills to coordinate the state's economic development activity, create more enterprise zones and reduce temporarily Oregon's capital gains tax rate. And there is legislation to clarify how and when to tax data centers such as Facebook's that were prize catches by previous economic development recruitment.

Here is a quick overview of some of the significant jobs-related legislation in Salem:

House Bill 4040: Drafted by two influential legislators — Reps. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, and Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, along with State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, the Oregon Investment Act seeks to align state economic development programs and incentives to make them more inviting to private sector companies. The measure has passed out of the House Transportation Committee, so remains alive.

Read, Bentz and Wheeler co-authored an op-ed in The Oregonian explaining their intentions:

"Oregon spends significant Oregon Lottery profits and other funds today to enhance business development. Yet those tools are scattered across multiple agencies and have little strategic connection, and sometimes have little accountability to measure results.