It was the same tactic Republican lawmakers employed in June, when they fled to Idaho to avoid a vote on an earlier version of the same cap-and-trade bill, prompting Oregon’s governor to call in state troopers to track them down and return them to the statehouse. The bill eventually died, giving the minority party a playbook for undercutting liberal policy goals. With similar climate change legislation on Democrats’ wish list again this year, Republicans had long threatened a walkout.
The scene this week flouted the state’s maxim, which celebrates collaborative political parley. But instead of following the “Oregon Way,” Republicans accused Democrats of casting off their amendments and ramming the bill through the legislature. Meanwhile, Democrats said Republicans are ignoring the concessions they’ve already made and are disrespecting the will of voters who gave them control of all three branches of state government.
The stalemate illustrates the deep divide between the state’s densely populated, ultraliberal urban enclaves — such as Portland and Eugene — and its sprawling rural counties with proud libertarian streaks, where militia occupations and secession movements have found boosters.
“They’re frustrated that the traditional electoral process has not really benefited them,” Priscilla Southwell, a University of Oregon political science professor, said of conservatives. “Republicans are saying, ‘We’re not just outvoted, we’re ignored.’”
“They’re desperate,” she added.
The 2018 election gave Democrats supermajorities in the state’s House and Senate, and they maintained control of the governor’s office — a sweeping victory that they said represented a popular mandate to pursue their climate agenda.
But Republicans have said the centerpiece of that policy, the cap-and-trade legislation, will increase the cost of living for rural residents, disproportionately harming their constituents. They pledged to do “whatever it takes” to stop it.
Gov. Kate Brown (D) said the resulting political fracas was “a sad moment for Oregon” and accused Republicans of taking a “taxpayer-funded vacation.”
“We were all elected by the voters to represent our communities, and to be the voice of our constituents in the capitol,” Brown said in a statement Monday. “Republicans signed up for this. If they don’t like a bill, then they need to show up and change it, or show up and vote no.”
State House Speaker Tina Kotek called the walkout “a crisis for our democracy.”
“This is not a game,” she wrote on Twitter. “Voters elected us to do our job. The members who refuse to show up and do their jobs are saying to a large majority of Oregonians: your vote doesn’t matter.”
Under the cap-and-trade plan, greenhouse gas emissions would be limited and carbon-producing businesses would be required to purchase pollution credits. Over time, the state would decrease the number of credits available, thereby lowering the level of emissions allowed.
Democrats have already compromised on the bill, which has been in the works for years, said Greg Dotson, a professor of environmental law at the University of Oregon. When Republicans said they didn’t know enough about the bill’s effects, Democrats held working groups and the legislature funded studies, he said. They held hearings across the state.
“At pretty much every point, the majority has made accommodations and slowed the process down,” Dotson said. “The ultimate outcome is a policy that has the votes to pass, but you can’t pass it without a quorum.”
Unlike other states, Oregon’s quorum rules are written into its constitution, making them difficult to change or work around. But the authors of the state’s founding document probably never imagined that the requirement would be put to such use, Dotson said.
“Quorums were originally established because you wanted to make sure you didn’t have secret meetings of the legislature running roughshod over people,” he said. “I don’t think it was ever contemplated as a way to allow a small minority to prevent democratic results.”
Republicans say they’re angry that Democrats have rejected their proposed amendments, especially one that would put the issue on the November ballot and allow voters to decide its fate.
“Pay attention Oregon — this is a true example of partisan politics,” Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. said in a statement.
Senate Republican spokeswoman Kate Gillem said the issue is too contentious to be hashed out among lawmakers.
“Cap-and-trade has become an extremely divisive issue in the state,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what party you’re in, the bases are pulling the legislators in opposite directions. It needs to be referred to voters.”
The bill is also too far-reaching to be considered during the legislature’s 35-day “short session,” which occurs every other year, Gillem argued.
“Denying quorum is one of the only tools that the minority party has right now,” she said.
To some observers, the standoffs portend a grim future for state politics. Also this month, a Republican-led group, Move Oregon’s Border for a Greater Idaho, circulated a petition to move Idaho’s border to the west, subsuming Oregon’s rural eastern counties. The effort is unlikely to succeed, but it plainly exemplifies the state’s widening gulf.
However, Southwell, the professor, who also co-edited the book “Governing Oregon,” said the walkout might actually bring the two sides closer together. It will signal to Democrats that “a supermajority is not a guarantee you can get things done.”
“It might have a moderating influence,” she said.
But as they fled the statehouse Monday, Republicans signaled they were willing hide out until the session ended. So even if the conflict forces more Democrats to reach across the aisle, they might arrive there to find their colleagues’ desks still deserted.