Transportation package: A major failure

Jeff Kruse

This entire Legislative Session has been pretty much defined by politics winning out over policy

Environmental groups rejected bipartisan plan that almost doubled the level of carbon reduction because they were more interested in the carbon trading program (that would have made some people rich) than actual carbon reduction results

by Sen. Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg)

I thought this week I would actually be able to report some good news, but as of Wednesday night that opportunity went away. Late Wednesday night the Governor contacted the Senate President and informed him she was no longer interested in pursuing a transportation package, which ended the activities of the Senate workgroup, and killed the legislation we had been working on. Several of us had put countless hours into this process and find this result very frustrating.

In what has been the most partisan legislative session I have served in this would have been the one truly bipartisan product and now it is gone.

It might be best at this time to recap the timeline and events that have transpired. In February the Speaker and President convened a workgroup to work on a transportation package. The group consisted of two Republicans and two Democrats from both the House and Senate, along with people from the Governor’s office and ODOT. We met two nights a week for several weeks and had actually made a great deal of progress towards the development of a plan that would have benefitted all regions of the state. An interesting side note, which becomes relevant later, is the fact we changed Governor’s in the middle of this activity. I had told leadership that we would work in good faith if they would not pass the lower carbon fuel standards bill (SB 324). When that bill passed the workgroup ended.

Governor Brown stated a transportation package was a top priority, and to that end she convened meetings of legislative leadership to try and come up with a solution. After a couple of weeks they decided the best course of action was to bring the original workgroup back together (with one change on the Democrat House side), this time led by the Governor’s office, to try and come up with a solution.

We divided out work into two areas, carbon reduction and transportation projects, with carbon reduction being the first objective. The reason we had opposed the low carbon fuel standards (LCFS) was because, on its base, it was having policy drive science. I don’t want to get too deep into the details, but LCFS required certain levels of fuel blending at certain dates. The off ramp, if the standard couldn’t be met (and it couldn’t) would be the purchase of carbon credits. So, in essence, we were creating a program of carbon trading that would have made some people rich without the desired level of carbon reduction. On top of this, it would be funded with a gas tax increase. Our first objective was to find a way to get to the desired level of carbon reduction without LCFS. We actually not only achieved our objective but almost doubled the level of carbon reduction and all 8 legislators in the workgroup signed a document in support of the plan.

We then began the process of putting together the transportation package, which we also accomplished. We even outlined a way to get an additional 80 million dollars into mass transit to help with urban congestion. Up to this point everything had been policy driven, but this is where it became political. A letter appeared signed by 19 House Democrats saying they would oppose the repeal of LCFS. This was not totally surprising because, when we had brought the environmental groups into our discussion it became very clear they were more interested in the program than the results, as they rejected our plan with higher carbon reduction than what they had campaigned on. At this point the workgroup ended.

The next step was a Senate-only workgroup, with the encouragement of the Governor. We proceeded to put the finishing touches on the product and a new committee was formed to hold a public hearing on the bill. Interestingly the chair of this new committee was Senator Chris Edwards, who was the chief sponsor of SB 324. This committee met one time and took public testimony. Virtually every business organization in the state was in support and all of the environmental organizations were opposed. While we fully expected the environmental groups to ignore the actual facts (which they did), what was the most offensive was the testimony from the ODOT Director. He had put carbon reduction numbers inside of his agency on the table weeks ago, and then he came in and said they were not real. At the very least he should have informed the workgroup ahead of time. Our theory at this point is that he wanted the legislation to die for one very specific reason, and that is because we were going to require levels of efficiency in ODOT. ODOT is an agency with over 4,000 employees and a budget of over 4 billion dollars. We were asking for 50 million dollars a year in efficiencies for six years with that money going directly to roads. He didn’t like it and now he doesn’t have to do it.

A week ago the plan was to pass a bill and try and require the Speaker to take action. But, at the end of the day, Democrats don’t like making each other look bad which is why the Governor pulled the plug. This was a good and necessary package and one all Oregonians could have been proud of. But now we have nothing, as politics once again wins out over policy. This pretty much defines this entire Session.