Intraparty Differences over Clean Air Funding

By William Street

There is a deep historic division in Oregon Democratic circles most commonly referred to as “Jobs versus Environment.” This split crosses industrial lines: workers in extractive industries, such as forestry, are often pitted against workers in less polluting industries. It crosses rural/urban lines since many workers in extractive industries live in rural portions of Oregon.

This historic division appeared again last week when House Democrats refused to fund the governor’s Cleaner Air Oregon initiative. The sum: $1 million to be paid by polluters.

This suggests House Democrats have placed jobs first and clean air second. Or perhaps they placed getting campaign donor money ahead of clean air since the governor’s proposal included a tax on all of Oregon’s 2,525 companies holding air pollution permits.

It is difficult to determine why House Democrats did what they didn’t do, and it serves as a reminder that what appears simple can become convoluted in the legislative process.

Were legislators lobbied by workers who argue in defense of an unhealthy workplace? Or perhaps Mothers Against Clean Air showed up en masse to testify? Maybe unions sent their representatives to Salem demanding that the air in their neighborhoods be dirtier than the air in rich neighborhoods?

Lest there be any confusion, no Republicans stood up to rally for the governor’s clean air efforts.

One representing Clackamas County, Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, took a leave-the-polluters-alone type of stance, while Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, gave an emotion-driven speech on the House floor along the lines of, “Really? Really? Can we turn our backs on our children in these (polluted) neighborhoods?”  

Even a few R’s stepping up would have guaranteed passage. Instead, a few Democrats were able to side with all of the Republicans to block this effort. Given the toxic chemical release from glass manufacturers last year, it is surprising that this legislation was delayed to the point where it never got out of committee.

There are real conflicts between how employment and environmental policy is or isn’t put into place. Both sides are adamant in their positions. Jobs or pollution? Or both.

Contrary to common media coverage, the issue isn’t the robustness of environmental policy but rather the lack of industrial policy. Instead of planning our economic future nationally or locally, we all too often allow those who influence or control markets to place return on investment considerations above the needs of the public, both in terms of environmental quality and of jobs.

As long as we as a country continue to ignore industrial planning and refuse to address all of its aspects, workers will be victimized by efforts to protect those public values that have little direct and immediate economic value.

Most environmental polices in the past did not divide workers and environmentalists. It is no accident that a Republican president signed the first National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 passed by a Democratic Congress more than 40 years ago.

This issue has always had bipartisan support. That companies have succeeded in blocking this legislation is not a positive sign for future issues in Oregon.

As this is written, the legislature is closing in on adjournment for the year. Could this legislation arise like a phoenix out of what some have called the “black hole” of the Joint Ways and Means Committee? We should know soon.