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Walkout shortchanges Oregon voters

Republicans in the Oregon Legislature apparently have decided they no longer need to participate in the process of lawmaking when things don’t go their way. They just leave, and block every bill — not just the one they object to the most — from being enacted into law.

Senate Republicans left the capitol on Monday, and their colleagues in the House followed suit on Tuesday. By law, the short 2020 session must end on March 8 — a week from Sunday.

The walkout, like the previous one the Senate GOP caucus staged last summer during the 2019 session, is supposedly over proposed cap-and-trade legislation to address climate change by reducing Oregon’s production of greenhouse gases dramatically by 2050. The legislation would do this by charging companies such as fuel suppliers and utilities for the emissions they produce as an incentive to reduce those emissions.

But is cap-and-trade the real issue?

Republicans say the legislation is too complex to take up during a short, 35-day session. This ignores the fact that they also walked out over this legislation last year, during a long session.

They argue that the cap-and-trade plan would unfairly burden residents of rural parts of the state. But 17 Eastern Oregon counties are exempt from the bill’s requirements.

Most recently, Republicans say their concerns were ignored by majority Democrats and none of the amendments they proposed were considered. Yet Democrats have amended the bill in numerous ways since the 2019 session to address Republican concerns.

Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, told the Mail Tribune she doesn’t think differences between Democrats and Republicans can be resolved before the session ends. Wallan complained that residents here could see gasoline prices rise 17 to 50 cents because Jackson County is considered a metro area under the legislation. But Jackson County wouldn’t be phased in until 2025, three years after the program starts in the Portland area in 2022.

The phased implementation is another concession to Republicans. And industry observers are divided on whether gas prices will really spike. California, which implemented a similar program between 2014 and 2016, did not see huge price increases at the pump.

Republicans say they would return and finish their work if Democrats agree to put the proposal to a statewide vote. That’s a poor way to decide complex legislation, which is why the Legislature exists in the first place — provided its members show up to do the job they were elected to do.

If the Republicans stay away until the session ends, they will be responsible for blocking not just cap-and-trade but nearly every other measure awaiting action. Only three bills had cleared both houses of the Legislature when Senate Republicans walked out on Monday. Forty bills passed by the House still await Senate action.

The unfinished business includes emergency relief assistance for Umatilla County, devastated by recent flooding. Bills backed by Republicans are also in limbo, including one to freeze property taxes for seniors and one backed by Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, to modernize the Oregon Department of Forestry. In addition, the Legislature continues to cost taxpayers at least $14,300 a day — a figure calculated by the Legislative Revenue Office in 2018.

Being in the minority can be frustrating. But that’s the way the system works. If Republican lawmakers can’t live with that reality, they should find another line of work.