Image for I-5 Bridge Memo Signed; Cap-and-Trade Bid Resurfaces

Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a memorandum to restart work on a replacement for the I-5 Columbia River Bridge. But the political thunder this week reverberated around Democratic plans to try yet again to pass a cap-and-trade bill.

The I-5 Bridge memorandum calls for restoring a bi-state project office and developing a draft report by December 1, 2020. The report will re-evaluate the project’s purpose, scope and budget.

Inslee called the bridge an “arterial for the economies and the lives of the entire states of Washington and Oregon” and a replacement “mandatory.” Brown said she wants a new bridge that is seismically sound and includes high-capacity transit. Because the bridge replacement will center on “safety,” Inslee said it won’t be affected by passage of an initiative dramatically shrinking revenue from Washington’s license plates.

Forward progress on the Columbia River bridge was hailed broadly, but news of a cap-and-trade revival in the 2020 Oregon legislative session unleashed familiar partisan passions. Democrats said action was overdue. Republicans said here we go again. Legislation in 2020 would be the third try.

Reps. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, and Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, are circulating the Oregon Resilient Communities Act (ORCA), which according to reports maintains the basic structure of House Bill 2020, which failed when three Senate Democrats sided with Republicans in blocking passage.

Marsh and Power are proposing significant changes, including giving fuel importers a two-year pass on complying with cap-and-trade provisions. That modification is designed to negate, or at least delay, an immediate impact on gas prices at the pump – one of the more effective arguments of opponents. 

The Marsh-Power proposal would give more of the money generated from the cap-and-trade regime to cities and counties without competitive grants. “We want to empower cities and counties to see themselves as part of the solution,” Power says.

Brown also is exploring concessions to pave the way for cap-and-trade success in the 2020 legislative session. Instead of delaying inclusion of fuels under cap-and-trade, Brown would divide the state into three regions with staggered start dates. The Portland region would go first, other urban centers would be next and rural areas would come under regulation at an unspecified date. This approach is similar to how Oregon’s increased minimum wage was implemented in stages.

OPB’s Dirk VanderHart reports Nik Blosser, Brown’s chief of staff, has been meeting with cap-and-trade skeptics. “We’re just very focused on passing significant legislation that achieves the governor’s goals.” 

VanderHart notes that Senators Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Fred Girod, R-Stayton, are cooking up their own proposal. Both were ‘no’ votes on HB 2020.

Senate Republicans, who staged a multi-day walkout near the end of the 2019 session, aren’t ruling out a similar tactic in 2020. “The short session was created to balance the budget and to do some fixes,” said Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass. “Cap-and-trade is an all-encompassing policy that dramatically affects how we will be conducting business. That simply should not happen during the short session.”

Environmental groups have been agitating for another cap-and-trade try in 2020. They say meaningful climate change legislation can’t wait.

Marsh, Power, Brown, Roblan and Girod all describe their legislative ideas as preliminary, which raises a tactical question of whether there is time and willingness to craft consensus legislation that can pass the narrow procedural windows of a short 35-day session. If a bill doesn’t clear a committee in its house of origin by the end of the first week of the session, it is effectively dead. Major legislation may be able to leapfrog deadlines, but it also could be snagged by a lack of time to air a proposal that could still be forming more or less on the run.