Airhorns echo in protest through nearly empty Capitol
SALEM — Loggers, truckers, farmers and right-wing activists filled the void created by an exodus of lawmakers and lobbyists from the Capitol on Thursday.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters braved the rain to wave signs and drive the streets, ringing the Capitol and blaring their horns.
It was a display of support for Republicans who have left the Senate — and the state — to protest efforts to tighten environmental restrictions to ward off climate change.
The noise was a notable contrast to the silence about ongoing talks between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to bring Republicans back after the bill they said they were walking out over was effectively killed.
Republican senators have been absent from the Capitol for a week now.
On Thursday, at least one, Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, confirmed he had returned to Oregon. Others were rumored to be returning to the state.
On the other side of the Capitol, many members of the House have left Salem, as that chamber only needs 40 members to declare the session is over, which they want to do in conjunction with the Senate. Some were as far away as Alaska and Hong Kong.
Their departure signals that the 2019 Legislature is nearing a conclusion.
Outside the Capitol, protestors were cheerful and rowdy, hyped up by a Lars Larson remix of Jim Croce's outlaw anthem "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" to poke fun at Gov. Kate Brown.
By 1 p.m., the rain had washed out most of the protesters, and the streets back to normal traffic volumes. Empty log trucks, however, still circled the building, blasting their air horns.
They vented their anger at two pieces of legislation. House Bill 2020, limiting the state's greenhouse gas emissions through a carbon pricing program, and House Bill 2007, imposing an emissions standard for diesel truck engines in the Portland area.
Neither bill is expected to become law. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Tuesday that Democrats don't have the votes to pass HB 2020.
HB 2007 passed the House with bipartisan support, but it can't get a vote in the Senate until Senate Republicans call off their walkout — something that seems less likely by the hour. The Legislature by law must end the current session at midnight Sunday.
Both bills garnered attention throughout the session from the timber and logging industries. Timber interests were chiefly represented by lobbyists Chris Edwards and Kevin Campbell.
Neither returned requests for comment Thursday about the legislation.
Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, said both Edwards and Campbell were "very involved and extensive on both bills." Those efforts were rewarded, she said. The cap-and-trade bill was amended to the point that lobbyists for other industries felt the logging industry got better treatment than any other.
"Timber is the iconic Oregon industry," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland. "It is really important for people who live in many of the rural parts of the state. So, yeah, we have been paying special attention to that."
A late amendment, the language of which was requested by the Oregon Forestry & Industries Council, exemplified that. It would require the state to make sure the amount of timber flowing to mills doesn't decrease.
However, it was apparently not enough for the logging and timber industry, which mounted its greatest opposition yet on Thursday.
As Dembrow sat in his office, telling reporters about his concerted effort to hear the interests of timber and logging, air horns from logging trucks periodically drowned out his voice.
That, Dembrow said, is the result of a misinformation campaign. "It's massive," he said. "It's widespread, this misunderstanding."
Dembrow said policy like HB 2020 isn't the problem. "If you go into a mill now, you'll see very few workers," he said. "It's very, very automated. A lot of logs are being exported to other countries as opposed to being milled here. Presumably they get better prices, that's why they do it. But workers assume it's the result of environmental bills, when it's actually due to market forces and business decisions."
Power agreed, specifically on HB 2007. The bill would impose emissions standards on diesel trucks registered in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.
It doesn't apply to trucks registered in other counties, and those trucks can still travel through the Portland area with engines that haven't been retrofitted. Logging trucks would have been exempt from the new regulation as would any company with five or fewer trucks.
"If you are just passing through but are not part of a company registered in the tri-county area, you are not affected by the bill," Power said.
At one point, Power said, the legislation provided for a phaseout of "old and dirty" trucks during the next 10 years. However, with work from Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Linn County, lawmakers narrowed that provision to just the Portland area.
Boshart Davis, the owner of a trucking company and the Legislature's chief advocate for the trucking industry, voted for HB 2007. She said the bill was amended late in the game, and the truckers protesting it don't understand that.
"2007 has been amended so much," she said. "My guess is that only a small percentage of people realize … there is an amended version of the bill."
Boshart Davis spoke at Thursday's rally, tweeting that she had "been in Salem since mid-Jan, and this is the BEST DAY EVER. I am PROUD to rep District 15 & the loggers, truckers, farmers in ALL parts of the state. Let's keep Oregon affordable for ALL working families."
House Bill 2007 passed the House 44-15 on Tuesday, June 25, but won't become law without an approving vote in the Senate.
Power said she worked with a coalition of industry in crafting the bill, including logging and trucking. The Oregon Trucking Association is neutral, not opposed, on HB 2007, according to the association.
When asked, then, to explain why truckers were surrounding the building, Power seemed defeated. "I can't. I think there have been misunderstandings about what the bills do and don't do," she said. "I haven't physically been there, but in talking with some of my Republican colleagues, I think some people may have misinterpreted the bills, but they may be protesting more than that right now."
Thursday's rally was organized in part by a group called Timber Unity. That group recently started a political action committee directed by Stimson Lumber Chief Executive Officer Andrew Miller, who has been a vocal opponent of HB 2020.
Miller said Thursday, June 27, that he supports Timber Unity and agreed to set up the PAC, but he's not involved in the group's decisions or communications. "Unfortunately, with all the laws around PACs and politics, you can find yourself in a buzz saw, and I thought, well, the minimum I can do is give them a legally sound or valid entity to operate from," Miller said. "I don't have anything to do with their day-to-day activities, their messages, who they talk to."
Miller has operations in Washington County, where company trucks could be regulated under HB 2007. Asked about HB 2007 Thursday, Miller said, "Honestly, I'm not up to speed on that one."
Timber Unity PAC has reported about $13,000 in contributions since it was registered with the state last Thursday, June 20 — the same day Senate Republicans walked out. Of that money, $5,000 came from Miller personally.
Jim Geisinger, vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, said that he wouldn't quite characterize that group's stance as "neutral" but the bill had been improved significantly.
A 'toxic' bill number
No resolution to the Senate stalemate was evident, and no one involved in finding a solution was talking. Gov. Kate Brown's staff wouldn't make her available for an interview or address questions about what she was doing to end the political standoff triggered by one of her signature policy moves.
Courtney, approached by a reporter as he was walking off the Senate floor, did not respond to questions. He responded to another reporter's questions later with off-topic comments before retreating to his inner office. A spokeswoman said he would not answer any questions.
Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who leads Senate Democrats, said Thursday that Courtney and Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., of Grants Pass, are in regular communication. "I think it's just enough to say that they're talking, and that's a good sign," Burdick said. "There really is nothing to negotiate, to be honest. (Republicans) got what they wanted, what they said they wanted. House Bill 2020 is not moving. There is no conceivable reason for them not to be here right now. We do not intend to sacrifice any more of our legislative agenda."
Senate Republicans walked out for the first time in May, in protest of a new tax on businesses to pay for public schools. Days later, they agreed with Courtney and Gov. Kate Brown to not to walk out again, in exchange for a "reset" on cap and trade and for two other bills getting killed: a bill to tighten gun laws and another to tighten vaccination requirements.
Dembrow said that the terms of the so-called reset were "very clear." Republicans wanted a new number for the bill, because the bill had become "toxic" to constituents, and to involve Bentz, the Republican senator from Ontario, in revising the proposal.
Bentz has been the Republicans' leader on the cap-and-trade legislation.
"I think it was cosmetic," Dembrow said of the bill number. "We were told that for the Republicans, the number 2020 was toxic."
But Dembrow said he was "begged" by nonpartisan policy analysts not to do so because it was less transparent.
Maintaining the same number on a policy means public electronic records of hearings and testimony are kept all in one place, instead of a whole new record required for a new number.
Bentz and Baertschiger agreed to keep the original bill number, according to Dembrow.
A spokesman for Baertschiger did not respond to questions and requests for an interview with the minority leader. Baertschiger has not returned multiple calls and texts from Oregon Capital Bureau throughout the week.
Dembrow said he set up a series of meetings with Bentz, who talked about amendments he wanted to the bill. Some would have cut into the bill significantly, Dembrow said, while others the Portland senator was open to.
For example, Bentz wanted lawmakers to do a ballot measure to change the Constitution so it would be clear that cap and trade dollars could be used to fund the transition to electric vehicles. Bentz then backed off that idea, Dembrow said. "He believed that he could generate support for that. And I was open to that.
"We have never heard from them, before they walked out, that we have not met the terms of the reset," Dembrow said.
Reporter Aubrey Wieber: email@example.com or 503-575-1251. Reporter Claire Withycombe: firstname.lastname@example.org or 971-304-4148. Reporter Mark Miller: email@example.com or 503-913-0450
SEN. BENTZ RETURNS TO STATE AS TROOPERS ARE CALLED OFF
At least one Senate Republican has returned to Oregon.
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, confirmed Thursday afternoon, June 27, that he had returned home. The state police had been called off, he said.
Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton declined to comment on whether police had been called off. Gov. Kate Brown's communications staff did not return requests for comment.
Bentz declined to say when troopers had been called off, but said he was assured he was safe to travel back into the state without the prospect of being confronted by police.
He said he did not know if any other 10 Republican senators had also returned to Oregon. They left the state after Brown authorized the state police to find the missing senators and return them to Salem.
Senate Republicans left the state June 20 to deny a quorum to stop the Senate from voting on a carbon pricing proposal. On Tuesday, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, announced Democrats did not have the votes to pass House Bill 2020 anyway, and that it was dead.
Bentz said the caucus would have a conference call Thursday afternoon to discuss whether two or more senators would return to the Capitol to provide a quorum so the Senate can get to work passing bills. The 2019 Legislative Session ends at 11:59 p.m. Sunday, and there is a glut of policy and budget bills awaiting Senate votes for final passage.
Bentz said the caucus is divided on how to resolve the walkout. Among discussion topics is whether Republican senators are willing to vote on policy bills, or just budget bills.
"It's safe to assume everything has been discussed, but no decisions have been made," Bentz said.
The Oregon Capital Bureau could not reach the other 10 senators.