Oregon State Capitol FILE (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
SALEM — One question has lingered in political circles in the days since Democratic legislators unveiled their latest plan to limit the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
What do the Republicans think?
The GOP holds a shrinking share of seats in the Legislature, but still possesses just enough members to halt legislative business.
Senate Republicans made national headlines for tanking last year’s proposal by fleeing the state, a possibility that looms over the coming session, which begins Feb 3.
Hence the interest: are the slate of changes recently proposed by Democrats enough to get their colleagues on the other side of the aisle to stay in the building?
Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, who leads Republicans in the Senate, was rather opaque about those odds when taking questions from reporters on Wednesday.
“Well, you know, it's a very fluid, dynamic situation,” Baertschiger said. “It's ever-changing. You know, I'm still having conversations, but nothing is off the table. And I would not want to speculate one way or the other at this point because it is such a dynamic situation.”
On Monday, the interim Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee heard three hours of testimony on the revamped proposal from invited guests, ranging from the chief operating officer of a truck stop company to a policy adviser at the Nature Conservancy. Lawmakers are in Salem this week for a series of interim meetings.
In what is — depending on whom you ask — either a breakdown in communication between the parties, or the rhetoric of political theater, Republicans convey concern that Democrats won’t listen to them.
“As long as we can sit down and collaborate and work on common goals, on issues, I am 100 percent behind doing that,” said Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, the newest member of the Senate and its environment committee. “And that's (what) I believe that we should all be here for ... But if it's, ‘My way or the highway,’ then that's a difficult decision to make.”
Rep. David Brock Smith, a Port Orford Republican who served on the committee that considered last year’s proposal, said he was not involved in crafting the new legislative concept released last Friday.
“Not being included in the new discussions was rather unfortunate,” Brock Smith said in an interview, “Because we might have been able to mitigate some of the issues that this bill has.”
Republicans seem to want to focus on nudging Oregonians to sign on to cleaner energy sources.
“We have to have a carrot, perhaps wrapped in chocolate icing, before you go with the stick,” said Findley, who was sworn in as a senator just last week, jumping over from the House to fill the seat of a resigning lawmaker. “And right now, we don't. So I think I think it's imperative that we do that.”
Brock Smith said Wednesday he has gathered bipartisan support for a bill that would boost incentives for Portland-area residents to buy electric cars and hybrids.
The greenhouse gas proposal’s architects, Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said the new plan includes significant changes in response to Republican concerns from last year, like phasing in new regulations for transportation fuels.
Yet before fielding questions Wednesday, Baertschiger made a forlorn speech — his cadence that of a priest resignedly lamenting the state of the world to his congregation.
“We talk about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer,” said Baertschiger, “We see that all the time. Well, I think this is kind of an example. Because the average working family just don't have the ability to deflect these costs. They're stuck. I think because of the polarization of this particular piece of legislation — we can't seem to come to any agreement, we can't even move towards any agreement — that maybe it's just time to let the voters make the decision.”
Baertschiger said Republicans have discussed a direct referral to voters and indicated there could be some support among Republicans for that.
But the draft legislation contains an emergency clause, which means that the bill can’t be referred to voters by lawmakers. Voters could still use the initiative process to force a public vote.
Dembrow said that making the legislation effective immediately after legislators approve it would allow the state to prepare for the program’s launch in 2022, even if an initiative is set in motion.
Asked what specific policy ideas Republicans had tried to suggest but hadn’t “stuck,” as he phrased it, Baertschiger said his colleague, Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, had “worked on quite a bit about, you know, electrification and some credits, tax credits and stuff with that.” Incentives could help electric companies accommodate demand on the grid as transportation starts using more electricity, Baertschiger said.
“You know, the problem with fossil fuels is when it comes to the natural resource sector is there's nothing out there in technology yet that replaces the brute horsepower we need to produce the natural resources, whether it's tractors or fishing boats or any of those kind of things,” Baertschiger said. “There's nothing really out there yet. And I think we ought to keep trying to incentivize new technology to be able to replace that. But those are things that are going to take a long time.”
Dembrow said that Democrats have been making efforts to include Republicans, pointing to Girod’s involvement in early talks on the current proposal.
“We have been listening to and to a certain extent working with other Republicans as well,” Dembrow said. “But I'm not going to go into detail on that. But I will say that their concerns and ideas are included in this bill and were the grounds for the changes that we made.”
Brock Smith isn’t convinced that rural Oregonians would be spared the effects of anticipated higher fuel costs in metro areas if the legislation passes.
“The initial increase in cost of transportation fuels will still fall to rural Oregonians in the costs of goods and services, right?” he said. “An apple that someone buys, or an article of clothing that somebody buys in Brookings, is going to be more expensive because it costs more to bring it there from Portland. And so they're not mitigating any of those financial impacts.”
Dembrow said the proposal prohibits fuel importers from passing the costs associated with complying with the new regulations to customers in areas of the state that aren’t subject to the regulations.
The proposal would regulate fuels beginning in the Portland metro area in 2022, and in 2025, extends to metro areas of the state and cities where at least 10 million gallons of fuel are imported.
“Whether or not they can vote for the bill, is, that's up to them,” said Dembrow of Republicans. “They have to do what's right for their values and the way they perceive their constituency.”
He said that while he can’t speak for Republicans, he “would expect” them to try to affect what the bill looks like, and then vote against it if they still didn’t support it.
“I vote on a lot of things I wish I didn't have to vote on,” Dembrow said. “… But if you have majority support, you have majority support. And, you know, I think people need to respect that. And let me just add, that given the changes that we've made in the bill, if Republicans don't show up, I'm not sure how much of it is about the program itself and how much of it is really about politics and ideology.”
Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.