Republican senators disappear from Capitol after negotiations over cap-and-trade flop

Protestors gather outside the Capitol, objecting to legislation that would impose limits on pollution and increase costs for some industry. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

UPDATE: Gov. Kate Brown directs Oregon State Police to return missing senators to the Capitol. The Senate decides to fine missing senators $500 a day starting Friday.

SALEM — For the second time this year, Senate Republicans have thrown the legislative session into disarray by refusing to come to work Thursday.

Republicans warned Tuesday and Wednesday that they could boycott Senate proceedings, as they did for four days in May, in order to stop a scheduled vote on a Democratic cap-and-trade bill.

Gov. Kate Brown responded by suggesting she could dispatch Oregon State Police to bring wayward senators to the Capitol, where at least 20 senators are needed for the Senate to hold votes. Republicans responded to that threat by leaving the state en masse Wednesday night and Thursday morning, according to multiple sources.

Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, was crossing into Idaho around 8 a.m. Thursday. Bentz has worked extensively to change House Bill 2020, the cap-and-trade proposal. But since December, he has been shut out of conversations about the bill, he said.

When the May walkout ended, part of the agreement was a “reset” on cap and trade. Bentz said that never happened, so the Republican agreement to remain in the building was void.

“They essentially left us with no choice but to protest the breaking of the agreement,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who told Oregon Capital Bureau he has left the state as well, although he declined to say which state he was calling from.

The specifics of the so-called reset aren’t clear. In May, several lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., of Grants Pass, couldn’t outline exactly what that meant.

On Thursday, Bentz referred the Oregon Capital Bureau to Baertschiger on what the reset exactly entailed, but he reiterated he didn’t feel there had been a good faith effort by Democrats.

Bentz has been pushing for the “lion’s share” of the money generated by the expansive environmental program to go to moving Oregonians into electric vehicles. He also wants the program to be softer on industry.

He said he repeatedly lobbied Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, but to no avail.

In a last-ditch effort, Bentz spent Wednesday negotiating with Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, and Gov. Kate Brown’s chief of staff, Nik Blosser. Power designed the bill with state Sen. Dembrow, D-Porltand, and the two chair the joint committee that crafted House Bill 2020.

Meetings started at about 10 a.m. Wednesday in a conference room off of Brown’s ceremonial office at the Capitol. Power and Bentz went back and forth as Blosser mediated. At one point, former Sen. Chris Edwards joined for about an hour and a half. Edwards is a lobbyist for the timber industry, but as a lawmaker, he championed similar climate legislation.

The group broke at about 7:30 p.m., and an hour later, Blosser called Bentz to tell him there was no deal. Bentz was asking for the same sort of changes he pitched to Dembrow and Courtney, he said.

“It wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Bentz said.

Bentz has a good rapport with Blosser. The two worked extensively on a transportation package two years ago. He commended the governor’s staff for working so hard to find a compromise, but without one, the only choice was to leave the state, he said.

“This is a bridge too far, and it’s dangerous for Oregon,” Bentz said of cap-and-trade. “I’m not doing this for show.”

“How long we are gone is up to the majority,” said Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, who indicated Thursday he has also left the state. “We will not allow our communities to be trampled anymore.”

When Republican senators left the Capitol during a week in May, holding up a vote on a tax on businesses to pay for public education, Knopp was the one Republican who continued to attend most Senate floor sessions, although he opposed the tax plan.

“We were unified then. We’re unified now,” Knopp said. “But the difference was I thought at that time that I could best serve the caucus and the cause by remaining in the building to have conversations with people and to engage on legislation that my constituents care about.”

Knopp added, “I don’t see, at this point, that there’s any positive aspect of staying in the building right now.”

Bentz and Knopp said they believe all Republicans have left the state. Knopp said they are in multiple states as of Thursday morning.

Bentz said he’ll stay the summer in Idaho unless something changes. He said he’s heard people around the Capitol disparaging the threats of a walkout, saying Republicans are looking for a vacation. That’s not so, he said. It’s a last resort.

“This is not a happy moment for me,” he said. “This is really, really difficult.”

Heard echoed Bentz’s sentiments.

“This is not what we wanted, but they gave us no other choice in all honesty,” Heard said.

Democrats won supermajorities in both the House and the Senate last year, and Brown won re-election in a race that was not as close as expected.

But while Democrats hold 18 Senate seats out of 30, the state constitution requires two-thirds of senators to meet in order for the Senate to vote, Knopp pointed out.

“We have no constitutional duty to stand there and allow them to run an agenda that’s damaging to Oregonians and their ability to put food on the table,” Knopp said.

Brown said Wednesday she planned to call a special session on July 2, almost immediately after the Legislature is set to adjourn for the year, unless lawmakers finish their work by then. Knopp said whether Senate Republicans return for that special session depends on its purpose. If the special session is called to approve pending state agency budgets, he said he thinks Republicans would attend.

“If it’s just another attempt to pass Multnomah County’s policy agenda without input from our constituents, I don’t think that we will be there,” Knopp added.

The Legislature is constitutionally obligated to pass a budget before it adjourns at the end of June. However, it recently put what’s called a “continuing resolution” in place, which will allow state agencies to keep operating at current levels until September, if a budget hasn’t been approved and signed for them by then.

The Senate approved the continuing resolution without opposition Monday after it previously passed the House with just one “nay” vote.

Brown has not stated whether she plans to sign it.

Senate Democrats are planning to meet on Thursday morning, according to Courtney’s spokeswoman.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” Carol Currie said.

The Senate is scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. Courtney will call the Senate to order, and then he must have a “call of the Senate” to ensure members are present. And if the required 20 senators aren’t there, the Senate president can send out the sergeant-at-arms to look in the members’ offices.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Currie said.

Together, the House speaker and Senate president must confer to decide the next step, and then they must go to the governor. The governor makes the final decision on whether to order state troopers to locate absent lawmakers and bring them to the Capitol for a vote.

Two spokespeople for Brown, and several other Republican senators, could not be immediately reached for comment early Thursday.

Republicans’ decision to leave the state was first reported late Wednesday night by the Bend Bulletin.

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING — For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.