Might rogue Oregon GOP senators leave Idaho? Top Dem says climate change bill is dead

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said Tuesday morning that he doesn’t have the votes needed to pass a climate change bill, possibly paving the way for 11 Republican senators camped out in Idaho to return home.

“House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor,” the Salem Democrat said on the Senate floor, The Oregonian reported. “That will not change.”

Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, told the newspaper that Republicans would be concerned about possible Democratic maneuvering to get him and his colleagues back in Oregon, and then pass the bill anyway. The bill could be moved back to committee, but two of the missing Republicans would be needed to form a quorum.

Bentz, who has been in an undisclosed location in Idaho since Thursday, worried about the possibility of a motion for reconsideration by one of the bill’s backers even if the bill was voted down.

A number of procedural issues would need to be worked out before Senate Republicans would agree to come home.

The bill, which would limit carbon emissions, passed the Oregon House last week. In the Senate, the bill would need votes from 16 of the 18 Democrats, if all 11 Republicans voted against it.

The Oregonian said one Democratic senator, Betsy Johnson, was known to be opposed to the bill.

Bentz, an Ontario lawyer who also operates a 100-acre alfalfa farm, had to just drive across the Snake River to arrive in Idaho, where he’s safe from getting picked up by the Oregon State Police — under orders from Gov. Kate Brown — and taken to the Capitol in Salem.

The Idaho State Police told the Statesman last week that ISP was not interested in apprehending the rogue lawmakers because they hadn’t broken any laws here.

Still, Bentz, who said he was in an undisclosed location in Idaho, wasn’t taking any chances. He told a reporter from The Wall Street Journal that he bought a burner phone because he was certain authorities could track his cellphone. Telling the reporter he was a novice at hiding out, Bentz said he hadn’t set up the burner phone and was speaking to him on his regular mobile phone.

“I don’t think any of us have really been — I hate to say on the lam, but ...” Bentz told the Journal. “It’s probably incorrect to be talking to you on this phone. They don’t give classes on this.”

Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. rejected driving into California, 58 miles south of his home in Grants Pass, and also went to Idaho. He didn’t tell WSJ reporter Ian Lovett that, but after his phone died, he borrowed one from Bentz and continued talking.

Baertschiger issued a statement through his office Monday saying that he and the other Senate Republicans had no plans to return to Salem, despite a $500-a-day fine being levied against each of them. Talks with Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat, were unsuccessful.

“I have been in communications without any results and nothing has been determined. My caucus and I intend to remain out of the state,” Baertschiger said.

Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend spent Thursday in Washington state, but decided that wasn’t the best place for him.

“You have a Democratic governor in Washington running for president on climate change,” he told the Journal, referring to Gov. Jay Inslee. “What better way to energize that campaign than to return intransigent Republicans so they can vote on climate change? I was like, I’ve got to get out of here.”

He ended up driving his hybrid Ford Fusion to Idaho, where a friend let him use his cabin next to a lake.

The Republicans note that what they’re doing isn’t unprecedented: Oregon’s Democratic senators disappeared in 2001, when Republicans held the chamber, to prevent a vote on a redistricting plan.

Earlier this session, Republicans left for four days to block a school funding tax package. They returned after Brown agreed to shelve bills on gun control and vaccination requirements.

Without the Republicans, about 100 bills are in limbo of dying, the Salem Statesman Journal reported. They include budget bills for several state agencies along with legislation considered priorities for Brown and Democratic legislative leaders, and bills sponsored by Republicans to help rural Oregonians.

Brown has said she will call a special session to convene on Tuesday, July 2, if the Republicans don’t return and the Legislature is unable to complete its work.

Reporter John Sowell has worked for the Statesman since 2013. He covers business and growth issues. He grew up in Emmett and graduated from the University of Oregon.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.