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Behind Oregon’s GOP Walkout Is a Sordid Story of Corporate Cash

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For a brief moment, the standoff in Oregon over climate change legislation seemed like an amusing bit of Wild West political theater. Last week, rather than stomach a losing vote on the bill, Republicans in the state Senate escaped—scattering to Idaho, according to rumors, maybe Montana—to deny Democrats a quorum, which is required to pass any legislation. When the governor threatened to send state troopers to bring them back to work, one of the “Absent Eleven” threatened violent resistance: “Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” blustered Brian Boquist.

It’s clear now that the situation in Oregon is a deeply unfunny story about the power of corporate interests and a small group of ideologues to squash legislation more than a decade in the making. On Tuesday morning, with the Republican members still in hiding, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney announced that the bill was as good as dead. “House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor. That will not change,” he said.

How did this happen? Let’s start with the legislation, which shares a foundational principle with the Green New Deal: that corporate polluters should help pay for the transition to a clean economy. Referred to as a “cap and invest” policy, the measure would have put a statewide limit on carbon emissions, forcing Oregon’s largest polluters to pay for emissions allowances. As the statewide ceiling gradually lowers, corporations would have to cut their own emissions or buy more credits on a regional carbon market known as the Western Climate Initiative, which includes California and Quebec. The revenue raised from this pricing scheme would be directed to clean-energy infrastructure and jobs programs. Advocates hoped Oregon would set an example for other smaller states—that it would prove the viability of cap-and-trade outside California, which has the advantage of having the world’s fifth-largest economy.

It’s not surprising that Big Business would fight this proposal. Corporations are used to being able to pollute for free, and they’d like to keep doing so (though it’s worth noting that many of the state’s businesses, including Nike and Adidas, do support the legislation, as do some of the state’s largest timber owners). Fossil fuel interests in particular view state-level climate initiatives as a serious threat; last fall they spent a record $30 million to defeat a carbon tax in Washington state.

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