SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Capitol was at a standstill Wednesday with only four days left in the legislative session, and it remains unclear when — or if— the Senate’s 11 Republicans will return to the statehouse and end a walkout over a climate bill.
Republicans have now been absent from the statehouse for one week in order to block a vote on a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a cap on carbon. Although Senate President Peter Courtney announced Tuesday that the proposal no longer has support among Democrats, the admission didn’t convince conservatives to immediately return.
Negotiations on the Republicans’ return were at an impasse, and a spokesman for Senate Democrats said via email “there’s nothing new to report” about where things stand.
Democrats have an 18 to 12 majority in the chamber, but they need 20 members present for a quorum.
Sen. Tim Knopp has told news outlets that he hopes conservatives can return Friday, a day after a planned rally at the Capitol in support of the rogue lawmakers. Senate Republicans for the past few days have been pushing hard over social media to get their constituents to show up to an all-day “Freedom Rally” organized by truckers and loggers in southern Oregon.
“This rally on Thursday is about we the people displaying our full passion against a Super Majority that is completely disconnected and dismissive of us when it comes to protecting and representing our values, economies, and overall way of life,” wrote Sen. Dallas Heard, whose brother is behind the protest.
Knopp, Heard and other Republicans didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Conservative senators have said that they’ve fled the state to avoid taking a vote on what would be the nation’s second statewide cap and trade program after California. They say it will kill jobs, raise the cost of fuel and gut small businesses in rural areas .
But the standoff also puts dozens of policies at risk including legislation directly benefiting rural parts of the state. Legislation expanding broadband access and possible extra funding to help prevent wildfires in southern Oregon could be on the chopping block if Senate leadership is unable to coax Republicans back before Sunday.
“We are likely — if Republicans don’t come back — to lose a lot of key projects in rural Oregon,” Gov. Kate Brown told The Associated Press earlier this week. “You can’t move forward on budgets without rural voices being at the table.”
Brown said she’s willing to call a special session next week if needed, but the dozens of bills currently awaiting Senate approval would be scratched. Lawmakers would have to reintroduce policies and again put them through the legislative process.
The Senate also still needs to approve a majority of the budget, including funding for the state’s public universities, foster care system and the state’s public health agency.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Democrat who chairs the committee in charge of funding decisions, said there are still over 34 budget bills to approve and dozens of other potential policies that are “critical for the entire state of Oregon.”
Policies addressing affordable housing and the shortage of child welfare workers benefit the entire state, said Steiner Hayward, as these problems cross the rural-urban divide. There’s also legislation directly addressing rural areas, providing funds to shore up infrastructure, levees and dams which are essential “for Oregon’s farms and dairies,” said Steiner Hayward, who represents the suburb Beaverton.
Brown signed a continuing resolution Tuesday to fund agencies at current operating levels until mid-September. But many agencies who were counting on increased budgets may have to sit tight.
Oregon’s seven public universities, for example, were counting on a $100 million funding increase from the Legislature to rein in tuition increases. Kyle Thomas, spokesman for the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said that the impasse won’t affect tuition levels just yet. But that could change if the standoff were to drag on into the summer.
Steiner Hayward said that it could take months to get through the backlog of bills if Brown called a special session, and that some policies that were priorities prior to the walkout may have to be thrown out. She adds that the majority of legislation approved this year received broad bipartisan support, and that even key Democratic priorities were changed to address Republican concerns.
“Republicans are not serving their constituents and have broken their oath of office by walking out,” Steiner Hayward said. “If you’re not in the building, how can you affect policy outcomes?”