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Cap-and-trade bill takes step toward reality

Landmark carbon pricing proposal moved out of committee on a party-line vote after months of hearings and amendments.

COURTESY PHOTO: AUBREY WIEBER/OREGON CAPITAL BUREAU - Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, and Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, leaders of the cap-and-trade proposal, speak at a rally outside the Capitol.Oregon's carbon cap-and-trade proposal passed out of its legislative committee on a party-line vote Friday, May 17, setting it up as the next landmark piece of legislation to pass in the 2019 session.

It's now one step closer to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown, who this week signed the Student Success Act into law. If cap-and-trade were to pass as well, it would give her two landmark wins within months of her re-election.

The bill now goes to the Ways and Means Committee, where it can continue to be tweaked, though the committee will look at the financial aspects of the bill, not the policy.

House Bill 2020 would set a 52 million metric ton cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Companies that produce at least 25,000 metric tons of emissions per year would have to pay for every ton they emit by buying allowances through an auction. The proceeds from those sales would go to a highway projects, climate mitigation projects, rural and minority communities, and other programs.

PMG/EO MEDIA/SRThe passage would join Oregon with California as the only U.S. states to implement cap-and-trade systems. It's a journey Oregon lawmakers have been on for about a decade.

The bill's passage out of committee was expected. While similar proposals failed in past years, Democratic leadership has been adamant that it's time to move forward with an answer to climate change.

The proposal has received strong criticism from Republicans and the business community, but with Democratic supermajorities in both the House and Senate, it was always expected to have the votes to pass. It was also something Brown campaigned on.

However, there was a hiccup earlier this week when a deal over an education package was reached. In order to pass a $1 billion-per-year business tax to fund education reforms, Democrats agreed to kill a couple bills and do a "reset" on cap-and-trade.

For several days, it wasn't clear what that meant. That's because the specifics were never hammered out.

Democrats agreed to give Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, a staunch opponent of the bill, more involvement. That wasn't much in evidence Friday. Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, who co-chaired the committee, allowed Bentz and other Republicans to offer their amendments for a vote at Friday's meeting — but all were voted down along party lines.

Dembrow and Power's own amendments passed, again on a party-line vote. They were essentially technical fixes.

Bentz's amendments were largely to lighten the burden on his district, which covers much of sparsely populated Eastern Oregon. One proposed amendment would have excluded Malheur County from the program altogether.

Dembrow said while he respects Bentz's interest in protecting constituents, the bill already does that.

"At the end of the day, we are going to look back at this program in 10 years and say, 'This is a program that works for Eastern Oregon,'" Dembrow said.

Bentz said despite the hard work the committee put in, the bill is nowhere close to ready.

The tension on the six-Republican, eight-Democrat committee was often palpable. Republicans often used their committee time to talk about how the bill will hurt industry and rural Oregonians while failing to make a dent in the global climate change problem. Democrats talked about how Oregon needs to be a leader in this fight and argued that the state is already dangerously behind schedule in taking action.

Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, said he has recently been reflecting on the dire circumstances while watching student concerns at his grandchildren's elementary school.

"Unfortunately, I feel we've waited too long," he said. "But we have to do something,"

In the 18 meetings held on the proposal since February, the two sides have failed to find much common ground.

However, a rare moment of bipartisan work came when the committee passed an accompanying bill from Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford. It would require public universities to study sequestration of carbon through forests and agriculture. Lively was the lone "no" vote, though other Democrats shared concerns with the bill.

After two hours of voting on amendments, many committee members took turns giving their thoughts and thanking each other for the hard work put in. It felt like the last day of school, as lawmakers took ideological shots at each other while also thanking their colleagues across the aisle for putting in the time and effort.

Then, with a bang of the gavel from Power, months of work had a conclusion. It was on to the next step.

"I'm filled with a combination of pride and exhaustion," Dembrow said.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: aubrey@salemreporter.com or 503-375-1251. He is with the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of the Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group, and Salem Reporter.