June 23, 2019; Willamette Weekly
The climate crisis provokes strong feelings. Those who fear the melting polar caps and those who fear a new, coal-free economy can be equally stirred up by proposals from the other side. But Oregon’s Republican senators took “resistance” to a new level this week when they absconded across state lines to avoid a vote on a carbon bill, then threatened to shoot state troopers sent to retrieve them.
The worst part is…it worked.
Let’s start at the beginning. Oregon Democrats have a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature, which means they can pass bills without support from Republican colleagues. They’ve used this power to pass rent control, justice reform, and other important legislation.
But apparently, HB 2020 was a step too far. The bill, which the New York Times’ Timothy Williams called “far more extensive than most” state climate bills, caps the amount of carbon businesses are allowed to emit in an effort to manage the climate crisis. What makes it so controversial is that it limits emissions not just from power plants, but from all industries, affecting the entire state economy.
Now, some might say this aggressive approach is our only hope to stem the increasingly ruinous effects of climate change on our ecosystem. Oregon Republicans felt differently, and since they don’t have the numbers to fight the bill, they absconded to Idaho last week, denying the legislature its voting quorum.
Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) said, “I feel no constitutional obligation to stand around so they can pass their leftist progressive agenda for Multnomah County that my constituents don’t happen to agree with.”
Governor Kate Brown asked state troopers to please retrieve the absent lawmakers; she said last Thursday, “Democrats have requested the assistance of the Oregon State Police to bring back their colleagues to finish the work they committed to push forward for Oregonians. As the executive of the agency, I am authorizing the State Police to fulfill the Senate Democrats’ request…[Lawmakers] need to return and do the jobs they were elected to do.”
This isn’t the first time lawmakers have pulled this type of stunt; famously, Wisconsin Democrats fled to Illinois in 2011 to deny a quorum for Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union bill. Texas Democrats hid out in Oklahoma in 2009 to block a redistricting plan that favored Republicans.
The Oregon situation went to the next level, though, when Senator Brian Boquist (R-Dallas) said, “Send bachelors and come heavily armed. I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.”
Governor Brown and others condemned his threats to state police.
Encouraged by Boquist’s rhetoric, right-wing militia groups such as the Three Percenters and veterans of the Malheur wildlife refuge standoff spoke up, offering to defend the senators from the troopers. Senate Republicans refused the offer, but planned to occupy the Capitol on Saturday. Fearing that militia groups would present a threat, Senate President Peter Courtney canceled the planned legislative session. (No militia groups materialized, and some Republicans were crass enough to taunt Democrats for fearing that “Republicans might show up.”)
As the stalemate dragged into a second week and end of the legislative session loomed, Courtney caved. He promised not to bring HB 2020 to the floor, and asked Republicans to return so they could pass other bills, including funding for state agencies.
Not everyone was happy about this. Republicans, including Knopp, seemed to be awaiting confirmation that the bill was permanently dead, not just out for the sessions. On the other side, Shilpa Joshi, a 31-year-old climate activist, said, “They have the votes. They just don’t have the courage. They are jeopardizing our future.”
David Roberts of Vox tweeted, “Dems organized, elected more people, wrote a bill, got more votes…and it doesn’t matter. That is as straightforwardly anti-democratic as you can get.” Protestors turned their ire on Courtney for failing to stand up for the climate bill.
The legislature has less than a week left to get other priority legislation through, but the public—perhaps rightly so—seems primarily concerned with both the pressing climate crisis and the failure of the democratic process to live up to its challenge. Perhaps it’s time to use that supermajority to pass some gun control in Oregon, to force lawmakers to work with each other like adults.—Erin Rubin