By Sarah Zimmerman and Gillian Flaccus / Associated Press
SALEM, Ore. — The Oregon Capitol was closed Saturday due to a “possible militia threat” from right-wing protesters as a walkout by Republican lawmakers over landmark climate change legislation dragged on.
Republican state senators fled the Legislature — and some, the state — earlier this week to deny the majority Democrats enough votes to take up the climate bill, which would dramatically reduce fossil fuel emissions by 2050. It would be the second program of its kind in the nation after California if passed.
Gov. Kate Brown then dispatched the state police to round up the rogue lawmakers, but none appeared in the Capitol on Friday and the stalemate seemed destined to enter its third day with a week left in the legislative session.
Right-wing groups posted their support for the GOP lawmakers Friday on social media — in one instance offering to provide escorts to them should the state police come for them.
A group of local Republicans were set to protest inside the Capitol on Saturday when lawmakers were present, and anti-government groups threatened to join, prompting the statehouse shutdown.
One of the groups, the Oregon Three Percenters, joined an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Dozens of people occupied the remote Oregon refuge for more than a month to protest federal control of Western lands. The standoff began to unravel when authorities fatally shot the group’s spokesman and arrested key leaders as they headed to a community meeting.
“The Oregon State Police has recommended that the Capitol be closed tomorrow due to a possible militia threat,” Carol Currie, spokeswoman for Senate President Peter Courtney, said in an email to The Associated Press late Friday.
The governor’s office also confirmed the threats.
Oregon State Police, in a statement, said it has been “monitoring information throughout the day that indicates the safety of legislators, staff and citizen visitors could be compromised if certain threatened behaviors were realized.”
Also late Friday, Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, both Democrats, condemned comments made by Sen. Brian Boquist, a Republican from Dallas, Oregon, that urged the state police to “send bachelors and come heavily armed” when they come to bring him back to the Capitol.
“His comments have created fear among employees in our workplace,” the leaders said in a joint statement. “We will always defend free speech and welcome frank policy discussions, but threats like these are unacceptable.”
Boquist has not responded to multiple requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Senate Republicans did not respond to queries about the statehouse closure.
Democrats have an 18 to 12 majority in the chamber, but they need 20 members present for a quorum. One GOP senator recently died and has not yet been replaced.
Under the proposed cap-and-trade bill, Oregon would put an overall limit on greenhouse gas emissions and auction off pollution “allowances” for each ton of carbon industries plan to emit. The legislation would lower that cap over time to encourage businesses to move away from fossil fuels: The state would reduce emissions to 45% below 1990 levels by 2035 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
Those opposed to the cap-and-trade plan say it would exacerbate a growing divide between the liberal, urban parts of the state and the rural areas. The plan would increase the cost of fuel, damaging small business, truckers and the logging industry, they say.
Democrats say the measure is an efficient way to lower emissions while investing in low-income and rural communities’ ability to adapt to climate change. It has the support of environmental groups, farmworkers and some trade unions.
California has had for a decade an economy-wide cap and trade policy like the one Oregon is considering. Nine northeastern states have more limited cap-and-trade programs that target only the power sector.