Oregon lawmakers met in Salem last week for their second to last round of interim hearings before the 2020 session. Committee agendas were largely populated by a host of routine topics and administrative updates from state agencies, but the real action seemed to be occurring outside those hearing rooms as legislators and advocacy groups brace for the election cycle.
Lawmakers are poised to again consider expansive legislation imposing new limits on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to subvert a proposed ballot measures designed to inject voters into the debate. Last month, a coalition of environmental groups announced an effort to refer three climate initiatives to voters in the General Election if the legislature does not enact a carbon pricing measure. This strategy has become frequent in our state politics—ask for something and, if you lose, threaten to refer something worse to voters to compel the legislature to act—and has proven to be successful. However, the lingering question for many is have the politics have changed enough, if at all, to move the needle on passing a bill?
Three influential voices in the greenhouse gas emissions debate have announced they would not be returning to the legislature. On Monday, Sen. Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) and Rep. Caddy McKeown (D-Coos Bay) announced they would not be seeking reelection after many years of service. On Wednesday, Sen. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) announced he would resign from his office in early January to focus on his campaign to represent parts of southern and eastern Oregon in Congress. These lawmakers have played a central role in the debate around greenhouse gas emissions and the announcements may perhaps change the debate, but not necessarily in a manner favorable to environmental advocates.
If the legislature fails to act and if environmentalists are successful in qualifying the climate initiative for the election, it could become a watershed moment in Oregon politics and redefine the political landscape in the state. Many of the announced and anticipated departures from the legislature will open the door for competitive primary and general election campaigns, and a climate initiative could become the central issue of those races. Needless to say, the political tension in Oregon has been high and is showing no signs of weakening any time soon.