The Angry, Messy Aftermath of Oregon's Climate Failure

Democrats had control of Oregon's entire state government, yet were unable to stop the GOP from derailing a major piece of legislation.
July 2, 2019, 4:55pm
Protesters hold an anti-GOP sign
Protesters in Salem, Oregon, on June 25. Photo by AP Photo/Sarah Zimmerman

Just two weeks ago, Oregon was on the verge of passing a "cap and trade" bill to fight climate change—the result of years of hard work and compromise by lawmakers and climate advocates. The bill, known as HB 2020, would have forced companies to buy credits to cover the cost of their carbon emissions, and while some activists opposed it on the grounds that it didn’t do enough to help communities hurt by climate change, it was widely regarded as one of the most progressive pieces of climate legislation in the country. Democrats had total control of the state government, and there was no way that Republicans—who argued that the plan would damage the economy, especially in the rural areas they represented—could stop it.

Except it turned out there was. GOP lawmakers in the state senate literally fled the state, denying Democrats the quorum they needed to pass the bill, or do anything at all. Since the legislative session ended on June 30, this forced Democrats to negotiate with the minority party, physically drag Republicans back to the capitol, or succumb to paralysis. Last week, Democratic leaders killed the bill in order to coax the Republicans to return so that they could take care of other priorities. Though walkouts by minority parties have taken place in Oregon and other states before, the stakes here seemed higher than usual—one runaway Republican made what sounded like a threat to Oregon state troopers while talking to the press—and the Democrats’ decision to kill the bill prompted a lot of frustration and soul-searching. In fact, the varied and sometimes conflicting responses from Oregon progressives seemed to follow the standard emotions everyone goes through during times of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Here’s a timeline.


In the middle of last week, there was a period of uncertainty after Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney announced that the Democrats did not have the votes to pass HB 2020. Republicans, having disappeared the previous week, remained in hiding, apparently distrustful of Democrats’ intentions. Activists on the other side of the aisle also refused to believe the Democrats had really caved. On Tuesday, after Courtney’s announcement, Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon, told VICE that his environmental group wasn’t sure that HB 2020 really was dead. "We believe we have the 16 votes to pass it," he said, citing conversations with individual Democrats.


Outside and inside the state, the Oregon GOP was widely condemned by the left. The walkout seemed to represent so much about the modern Republican Party’s willingness to resort to extreme parliamentary maneuvers to protect a minority of disproportionately rural voters. On Twitter, things were obviously heated:

And in the state capitol, protesters turned on the Democrats when Courney proclaimed HB 2020 to be dead. The LA TImes reported on Wednesday:

The disclosure prompted young climate activists in the Senate chamber to turn their backs in protest against the Senate president. They flooded out of the Senate chamber and onto the Capitol steps, chanting, "Peter Courtney's got to go" and "Protect our future, not the polluters."


On Wednesday, State Senator Floyd Prozanski explained the dilemma that the Republican walkout had presented for Democrats like him. "I think it's really damaging to the process to pay ransom to get people back in the building for quorum. It's not hard to see the dark places that could lead," he told VICE. "A bunch of us are wanting to say, ‘We're not going to change a comma in a bill as a price to get you back in the building.’ That said, we haven't thought of a way to get our business done. We have people in the caucus who say, ‘Of course it's horrible to buckle in this kind of way. What do you propose for getting the budgets adopted and the core services of Oregon funded?’"

The Oregonian summarized what Democrats were able to get accomplished, thanks at least in part to them getting Republicans back to Salem: "They passed a giant business tax for schools, new rules to help renters, juvenile justice reform, paid family and medical leave and diesel emission limits and sent a proposed hike in the tobacco tax and campaign finance limits to voters in November 2020." The national media singled out a bill that essentially banned single-family zoning in the state, which advocates hope will lead to denser cities with more affordable housing.


And Democrats are looking ahead to see what can be done to stop a Republican minority from torpedoing future legislation. This might be an end to the quorum rules, which would require voter approval, or a proposal Prozanski mentioned that would extend the legislative session if lawmakers couldn’t get a quorum, removing the leverage that Republicans had this time.


But as this legislative session came to a chaotic end, there was a sense that more had been lost than just a single climate bill. There’s a phrase in state politics, "the Oregon way," that refers to parties coming together and discussing policy. Before the GOP walkout, HB 2020 was regarded as a compromise piece of legislation that had been through a long process and subject to many amendments. If this bill can’t get through an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, what can?

"We're frustrated and a little confused," Morgan Gratz-Weiser, the legislative director for the Oregon Environmental Council, said on Tuesday. "We're disappointed on the broader question of how policy works and how the legislative body chooses to do policymaking. This sets a concerning precedent moving forward for how we can do policy."

When asked what advice he’d offer activists, Prozanski admitted he didn’t have much. "We're a little thin on advice right now," he said. "This is the week where we are not delivering on something we promised, which was a floor vote on this bill."


Not all climate activists were too upset by HB 2020’s defeat. Some had regarded it as a half measure insufficient to actually fight the problem. "Cap and trade was an idea that was developed in the 1990s, tested in the 2000s, and now after two decades of poor results, needs to be put to rest," Khanh Pham of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon said in a statement. "Today, we have much more information about the climate crisis, and we need to focus on proven climate strategies that can actually meet this moment."

Scott Lemons, hub coordinator of the Sunrise Movement’s Eugene chapter, said that his group had "tacitly" supported the bill, but never regarded it as a cure-all. Now they’re free to pursue much more left-wing climate bills closer in principle to the Green New Deal, which emphasizes government programs over the market-based approach of cap and trade. "It's frustrating," said Lemons, "but in a way it gives us another shot to get a more perfect bill across."

Lemons called the death of HB 2020 a "kick in the gut," but said that the walkout and the subsequent media coverage had generated so much attention that it may have energized people who don’t think of themselves as activists. "I feel like there's going to be a real wave of support because this has been all over the news," he said. "If anything, this has been a real educational moment for the community."

Any longtime climate advocate knows that progress on the issue is slow and halting, and the defeat of a single bill, no matter how dramatic the circumstances of the defeat, won’t likely discourage anyone. Governor Kate Brown could call a special session of the legislature to consider the bill (though Republicans might walk out of that as well), activists could push for a ballot measure that would do what HB 2020 was supposed to, and the 2020 election could put new Democrats in office more committed to fighting climate change. "Find people you want to support on this issue and put ‘em in office. Run yourself. Don't give up," advised Prozanski. "That's what we're saying right now. If I were a 20-year-old activist on this coming to the capitol I'd be a little jaded with that kind of advice, but that's what we're saying."

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