Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Great America

Climate Crusaders Defeated in Oregon—For Now


- June 26th, 2019
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The carbon tax that so disrupted Canadian and French politics is now threatening Oregon, and it brings with it all the controversy, political shenanigans, dishonesty, and public uproar that made it infamous.

The political debate over the carbon tax has become so underhanded and undemocratic that the entire state senate Republican caucus walked out in protest, making unexpected national news. The carbon tax appears finally to have imploded this week in no small part because of the protests.

Selling a carbon tax to Oregon voters has been difficult because proponents cannot hide the fact that it would cost people 22 cents more per gallon at the gas pump (a $3 increase by 2050) and anywhere from 11 percent to 50 percent more in utility costs. It is a high price to pay for a state already with one of the lowest carbon emissions in the nation. One of Oregon’s most famous lumber mills dating to the 1800s, Stimson Lumber, announced it would lay off all its workers and move to Idaho, in part, to escape the proposed taxes and regulations. That is how punishing the carbon tax is shaping up to be.

Many of the critical details of this massive tax bureaucracy would be left to the Climate Policy Office, the director and staff of which serve at the pleasure of the governor and may be replaced at any time. Thus, much of the implementation and enforcement of the cap-and-trade program is accountable only to the governor, with some senate oversight of appointments.

To pass the tax, a special joint committee hearing process was created that blocked lawmakers from offering minority report amendments. Then came same-day amendments that were dropped on the committee just hours before the vote. Lawmakers were asked to vote on immensely consequential matters without having enough time even to read the legislative language, and without the ability to ask questions of the amendments’ authors, because the authors’ names were often kept secret.

The final straw came when politicians attached an emergency clause for no reason other than to block the people from voting on the tax. An emergency clause makes it impossible for voters to launch a 90-day referendum petition campaign to put a question on the ballot quickly for a vote. By closing off the 90-day referendum option, the only other choice for voters would have been to use the traditional initiative petition path for the 2020 ballot, a more expensive and onerous process.

Senate Republicans asked the Democrats to send the carbon tax to voters for a public vote. They were denied. Republicans then requested that the emergency clause be removed so that voters could use the referendum petition process to bring the issue to the ballot on their own. They were denied again.

To make matters worse, the senate decided to pass a bill that made it extremely difficult for ordinary voters to download petitions on their computers and print them out at home. The state’s leading newspaper decried that it “smacked of voter suppression.” It appeared that the politicians in power wanted to block all future efforts, beginning next year, for voters to exercise their rights to petition their government.

The senate Republicans, seeing that they themselves had been shut out of the democratic process (blocking minority report amendments, late anonymous amendments) and that the voters had been shut out of the process (refusing to send the tax to voters, blocking voters from using the referendum petition process to decide for themselves), then decided to leave the building in protest.

Now the carbon tax appears dead. For the time being.

The lack of transparency, suppression of public participation, and raw abuse of power have reached new heights in Oregon, perhaps because the same political party rules all three branches of government and retains a strong supermajority, the likes of which we have not witnessed for nearly 50 years. To be fair, there were legitimate criticisms of mistreating the minority caucus in the 1990s when the Republicans had healthy majorities in both chambers.

Yet the near-record supermajority combined with the combustible carbon tax seems to have taken the abuse of power to levels unseen in modern Oregon political history. These new legislative tactics are important to share because, if left unchecked, they may be coming to a state near you regardless of which party is in power and what tax is being debated.

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