SALEM — One day after it surfaced, Oregon lawmakers gave up Thursday on a transportation funding plan linked to alternatives to a recently approved standard for low-carbon fuels.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said there were too many political roadblocks for the package to win legislative approval this late in the 2015 session.
“The issue remains to try to find a way through the politics of this building — and the politics outside — to do what I think everybody wants to do,” Courtney said Thursday.
“I’m just so sorry we could not break through… It’s not over. But it is over for this session. We will keep working at it.”
Courtney created a special Senate committee, which heard testimony Wednesday on the elements of the plan crafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in closed-door meetings in Gov. Kate Brown’s office.
One of them was Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, one of a handful of Democrats who opposed the fuels standard.
“It represented the best of what we do,” Johnson said. “It was bipartisan. It took into account urban and rural interests. It took time to craft a plan on this complex subject. Some may quibble with the particulars, but I thought this was a good effort.”
But environmental groups were firmly against including repeal of a new law, which Democrats supported and Republicans opposed, requiring the carbon content of fuels to drop by 10 percent over the next decade. Brown signed that bill in March.
Nineteen House Democrats signed a letter to that effect last week, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, added her voice to theirs Wednesday.
“Today’s hearing made it clear that the Senate proposal does not live up to the Clean Fuels Program in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and growing Oregon’s clean economy,” she said in a statement.
Environmental groups and others also raised questions about the projected reductions in carbon emissions from the alternatives contained in the Senate proposal.
During the hearing, Matt Garrett, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, said that an estimate of reductions from proposed technological improvements in traffic flows would yield only 20 percent of the amount calculated originally for the bipartisan group.
“We had some unexpected numbers thrown our way,” said Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, one of the negotiators and a member of the Senate committee.
“Basically what I think it did was to solidify the position of House Democrats, and some of the Senate Democrats, on this issue.
“Given more time, we could have refined the numbers and shown a carbon reduction that would have beaten the low-carbon fuel standard. But now we have not been given that opportunity.”
Kruse also said that environmental interests told him a couple of weeks ago, during the closed-door negotiations, that they preferred the standard to any alternative package of reductions.
Proposed alternatives included a gradual reduction in carbon content of fuels as they become available commercially — to 5 percent — plus conversion of more cars and buses to electric or natural gas, and improvements in bus systems and traffic flows.
“Sometimes this building is frustrating,” he said.
Environmental groups say there should not be a linkage of the issues.
“Oregonians deserve clean air and safe roads. To pit one against the other is a false choice and helps no one. We need both,” said Andrea Durbin, executive director of the Oregon
For funding, the plan called for an increase of 4 cents per gallon in the current 30-cent state tax — plus increases in vehicle registration fees — to raise money for road and bridge repairs and specified state highway projects.
Separate tax and fee increases would have funded expanded transit service in some districts — TriMet, Wilsonville, Canby and Sandy — and a computer upgrade for driver and vehicle records.
Courtney said he informed Brown in a telephone call late Wednesday that “we cannot get to the top of this hill.”
Brown said in a statement after Courtney’s announcement:
“The testimony at the hearing from business leaders and local government officials, as well as newspaper editorials and input I have received from many Oregonians, underscores the significant statewide support for investments in transportation. As I said back in March, if it takes longer than this session to accomplish, I’m willing to continue these discussions.”