Oregon GOP Senators' Walkout Over Bill to Cap Greenhouse Gas Emissions a 'Dereliction of Duty' Say Democrats

Oregon Republicans walked out of the state Senate for a second time over a controversial cap-and-trade bill (SB 1530) intended to curb the state's greenhouse gas emissions, with Democratic politicians describing the action as a "dereliction of duty."

Tensions between Democrats and Republicans came to a head on Monday when Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat, stepped in to break a stalemate and push the environmental bill through the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

Courtney's decision divided the chamber. Opponents said the Senate president cannot vote, while Senate Secretary Lori Brocker pointed out that they can in instances where there is a tie "which is different than the total count of members for a quorum." In this instance, the vote had been split 6-6, with Democratic State Senator Betsy Johnson joining the Republicans contesting the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. said the Republicans had no choice but to exit the chamber.

"Democrats refused to work with Republicans and denied every amendment that was presented," Baertschiger Jr. said in a statement. "Pay attention Oregon—this is a true example of partisan politics."

PRESS RELEASE: Statement by Senate Republican Leader @SenBaertschiger: “Senator Courtney’s actions leave no other option for Senate Rs but to boycott & deny quorum...” https://t.co/taQvptI2DJ pic.twitter.com/cPBvNvFzdH

— Oregon Senate Republicans (@ORSenateRs) February 24, 2020

The Democrats voted down an amendment put forward by the Republicans to take the bill to a state-wide vote, which would have given Oregonians direct say over its passage. But they had introduced changes to the bill to soften the impact on rural communities, including an opt-in option for certain counties—a move that had gained approval from the Oregon Fuels Association, Oregon Live reports.

Democrat politicians condemned the Republicans' decision to walk out, calling it "a dereliction of duty."

"Walking out on the job is a dereliction of duty," Democratic State Senator Ginny Burdick said in a statement. "These Oregon Senate Republicans are denying their constituents the representation they deserve and shutting down our democratic institution. Serving the legislature is a great honor. Walking out on the job is dishonorable and disrespectful."

Today 11 Oregon Senate Republicans walked out on their responsibility to serve their constituents when they refused to show up for work. Here is my statement in response. #orpol #orleg pic.twitter.com/G5thKNHKgm

— Senator Ginny Burdick (@SenBurdick) February 24, 2020

The state's constitution requires at least two-thirds of the Senate be present to pass legislation, meaning the Republicans' walkout has stalled the progress of the bill. Tim Knopp was the only Republican senator left on the floor.

It is the second time Oregon's politicians have left the building over cap-and-trade. Last year, state Republicans fled not only Oregon's capital, Salem, but the state itself with reports saying they were hiding out in Republican-controlled Idaho in what they described was "peaceful political protest," Newsweek reported at the time.

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, has spoken out against the walkout, saying she was "disappointed."

"We were elected by the voters to represent our communities and be their voices in our Capitol," she said on Twitter. "It's clear the Republicans who walked out are not against climate policy, but against the democratic process."

I am disappointed that the Republicans have chosen to shut down government. We were elected by the voters to represent our communities and be their voices in our Capitol. It's clear the Republicans who walked out are not against climate policy, but against the democratic process.

— Governor Kate Brown (@OregonGovBrown) February 25, 2020

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek echoed this sentiment, describing the action as "a crisis for our democracy."

Legislators shutting down the government by walking off the job is a crisis for our democracy.

This is not a game. 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. #orpol

— Tina Kotek (@TinaKotek) February 24, 2020

With no indication yet when they will return, others have expressed concern that it is not just the cap-and-trade bill that could falter but several other pieces of legislation due to be presented in the Senate before the current session closes in March.

A lot dies if Republicans stay out of the building until midnight on March 8.

Here's a couple -

Money for the homeless: https://t.co/lGtVj09gmV

A historic timber deal: https://t.co/UfZxaApCK9

Money to fight wildfires: https://t.co/WC8BauJCb9#orleg #orpol

— Lauren Dake (@LaurenDake) February 24, 2020

A spokesperson for Baertschiger told Newsweek: "Twenty-six counties in Oregon have submitted proclamations opposing cap and trade, and many of those counties are represented by Oregon Senate Republicans. Many of these Oregonians want their senators and representatives to stop cap and trade at all costs.

"By denying quorum, the Senate Republicans are representing their constituency to do that. Senate Republicans are seeking to get cap and trade referred to the ballot to let the people decide."

Newsweek was told the Republicans are prepared to stay out of the building for the remainder of the season.

What is cap-and-trade?

The idea of cap-and-trade is to curtail emissions by capping the amount of greenhouse gas emissions allowed into the atmosphere. To introduce some flexibility, companies can buy or sell (i.e. trade) part of their emissions quota.

Supporters of the policy say that the trading element encourages businesses to maximize energy efficiency to reduce emissions. While it enables certain companies to emit more than the official quota, total pollution falls because there are a limited number of allowances.

Cap-and-trade policies to reduce levels of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere—and therefore, acid rain—are often pointed to as an example of success. However, opponents of state intervention may oppose the program.

Not that long ago, Oregon had signed up to the Western Climate Initiative (WCI)—a regional cap-and-trade program that covered the entire economy, which would have reduced the area's emissions to 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. However, the alliance fell apart when Oregon and several other states withdrew from the agreement in 2011, leaving California and British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba in Canada.

California's cap-and-trade system remains an integral part of its climate plan, despite attempts by the Trump administration to take it down last year.

The article has been updated to include comments from the Senate Republican Office.

Gov Kate Brown
Oregon Gov Kate Brown—pictured here at the Axios News Shapers event on the U.S. education system on February 22, 2019 in Washington, DC—said she was "disappointed" by the walkout. Shannon Finney/Getty