PORTLAND, Ore. — Hundreds of bills remain stuck in legislative limbo as a Republican walkout in the Oregon Senate stretches into its fifth week. Among the stalled bills are several pieces of high-priority environmental legislation aimed at making the state's buildings more resilient in the face of climate change.
Plenty of other major bills are also at risk of premature death, including bills tackling homelessness, education and the drug crisis, but the loss of the climate package could have an added consequence: Oregon might miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for climate action.
The package of bills – Senate Bills 868 through 871 – was specifically crafted to take advantage of $369 billion in the federal Inflation Reduction Act earmarked for action by states on climate change, said Rep. Pam Marsh, who represents Jackson County and co-sponsored the legislation.
“There is what I can describe as a tsunami of federal money coming our way,” she said. “We want to make sure that Oregon families and communities have access to that, that we really get our fair share.”
The package of bills would create incentives for heat pumps, change building codes to increase efficiency and create a navigation system to make sure Oregonians take advantage of all the tax credits, rebates and incentives available to them as they upgrade their homes.
But the bills also had an arguably more important function.
“The bills are, frankly, less about Oregon investing in the devices themselves or the upgrades themselves, and more about setting up a really smart strategic infrastructure so that we can take best advantage of that federal money,” Marsh said.
The package of bills came as the product of a 27-member task force that met for much of last year and crafted the recommendations that formed the basis of the legislation.
Meredith Connolly, Oregon director of the advocacy group Climate Solutions, sat on the task force and said she heard from Oregon residents all over the state who asked for help as they sought to make their homes more resilient to the heatwaves and wildfires that have become the hallmark of climate change in the Pacific Northwest.
The bills “could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding to actually do this at scale in Oregon,” Connolly said. “It’s hard just to see that all potentially thrown by the wayside.”
The estimate for the package of bills was roughly $20 million, which would come from the general fund. But an analysis from Climate Solutions found that failing to pass the bills could see Oregon miss out on a minimum of nearly $250 million in direct federal funding that would go toward heat pumps for vulnerable groups, efficiency upgrades and workforce training.
Connolly said other states aren’t waiting to go after these federal dollars.
“Oregon is competing against every other state who, with a functioning legislature, is passing plans and capacitating their agencies and putting together competitive applications to get all of these billions of dollars for their state,” she said. “These aren't limitless pots of money from the federal government, and if other states have acted and they've expended those dollars and doled them out, Oregon could miss its chance.”
And that’s just one package of environmental bills. Jana Gastellum, executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council, pointed to other important pieces of legislation, many also eligible for federal funds, that could fall victim to the walkout.
Among them: a bill seeking to rid children’s products of toxic chemicals, drought relief legislation and a bill seeking to deploy natural solutions to climate change, primarily in rural areas of the state.
Many of those bills enjoy bipartisan support, Gastellum said.
"These are complicated issues and people are working really hard around the clock to make sure that we have good solutions,” she said. “To have a handful of people prevent that progress, it's devastating."
A spokesperson for Oregon’s Senate Republicans did not respond to questions from KGW.
But if the Republicans make good on their promise not to return to the capitol until the last day of the session, it’s unlikely any of these bills would pass. Marsh did raise the idea of trying to include some of the building resilience measures in a larger budget bill if the governor calls for a special session later this summer.
For Connolly, though, the thought of letting another political season pass without making meaningful progress on pressing environmental issues isn’t something she wants to contemplate.
"The outcome can't be that we didn't act on climate, that's just unacceptable,” she said. “We can't take a year off."