Will Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program throw a wrench yet again into the Legislature’s ability to approve a transportation package?
That’s how it played out during the 2015 session, when attempts to approve a transportation deal to pay for badly needed improvements to the state’s roads and bridges foundered on Republican objections regarding the fuels program.
The program itself is a well-meaning attempt to reduce the carbon intensity of Oregon’s transportation fuels by 10 percent over the next decade. It’s not clear whether the program will do much to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but it’s been estimated that it will increase the price of fuel: Previous estimates say it could cost consumers anywhere from 4 cents to $1 a gallon, although Gov. Kate Brown said Thursday that, thus far, the program has added less than a penny (0.25 cents) to the cost of a gallon of fuel in Oregon. (Remember that the Oregon Environmental Commission has voted to delay enforcement of the mandates until 2018 to allow time to develop cost-containment strategies and to work on other tweaks to the program.)
Democrats went ahead and renewed the fuel program during the 2015 session, despite warnings from Republicans that they would be unable to support any later transportation package that relied on an increase in the gas tax. Republicans said they didn’t want to saddle their constituents with what amounted to two separate price increases at the pump. GOP legislators stayed true to that promise, and since the increase in the gas tax required at least some Republican support, the transportation package died.
The 2017 session is scheduled to begin in earnest next week, and the transportation package is at or near the top on just about everyone’s “to do” list. And, in fact, a joint committee of legislators has been traveling the state to gather information for the package, including ways to pay for it. But if the package requires tax increases, it still will require some votes from Republicans.
And it became clear on Thursday, during a legislative preview session sponsored by The Associated Press, that Republican leaders still consider the Clean Fuels Program to be an obstacle to a transportation package. In fact, “obstacle” was the exact word used by Ted Ferrioli, the GOP’s minority leader in the Senate.
What was not clear on Thursday — and likely will not be clear until later in the session — was whether Democrats are willing to consider changes to the fuels program. Sen. Ginny Burdick, the Democratic Senate leader, urged flexibility from both sides but noted that she was gratified that the focus was on finding the best ways to reach the state’s overall goal of carbon reduction and not on a debate over whether the state should be reducing emissions in the first place.
Gov. Brown said Thursday that she was open to options, but has said in the past that she’s not in favor of wholesale changes to the program — and the fact that she was ready with that new estimate of increased fuel costs suggests that she still feels that way.
But she, and other Democrats, might need to set those feelings aside and prepare to do some bargaining. The logjam over the transportation package was likely the signature failure of the 2015 session. In fact, you might recall, Brown vowed early in the session that she wouldn’t let legislators leave Salem until that particular deal was done. Then they left, with no deal in hand.
This session will be considerably more difficult than its 2015 counterpart, especially with a $1.8 billion budget shortfall looming. Still, the Legislature can’t afford to leave Salem this year without a finished transportation deal.