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Dems' low-carbon plan throws roadblock at GOP transportation funding plan

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SALEM — Democratic leaders in the Oregon House have blocked a $340 million transportation funding bill introduced by a Wilsonville Republican.

State Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville, knew his bill faced long odds, given that Gov. Kate Brown and leaders in the House and Senate all said they would not attempt to pass a transportation funding bill until 2017. But Davis decided to pursue the legislation anyway, in an attempt to get a jump on projects to reduce traffic congestion and compete for a share of $800 million in federal grants for freight projects available this year under the transportation funding bill Congress passed in December.

Davis said Democratic leaders never responded to his emails and phone call requesting a hearing on the bill, and he finally learned the legislation would not get a hearing when he ran into Rep. Jessica Vega Pederson, D-Portland, chairwoman of the committee where the bill was assigned.

Davis’ bill would have raised money for transportation through a combination of bonds, an increase in the gas tax in the Portland metropolitan area to pay for local projects, increases in license and registration fees, and a hike in the weight mile tax for trucks.

House Democrats objected to the bill because it would have eliminated the carbon credit system created under Oregon’s low-carbon fuel standard. Last year Republicans refused to vote for any transportation bill that included an increase in the gas tax, unless Democrats would agree to repeal the fuel standard.

“Last session, in 2015, I spent a lot of time and effort on both the clean fuels bill and the transportation package and really worked hard to see if there was a path forward to compromise,” Vega Pederson said. “It wasn’t there. We spent a lot of time on it, and a lot of hours in rooms, and really we weren’t able to come up with anything that worked.”

Davis said he hoped legislative hearings would have provided an opportunity to revisit the low-carbon fuels program. “I still think legislative oversight is vital, because the (Environmental Quality Commission) has changed the facts on the ground in meaningful ways since the 2015 session through rulemaking,” Davis said.

In December, the commission voted to delay enforcement of the fuel standard until 2018, and commissioners said they wanted frequent updates on the supply and cost of alternative fuels and carbon credits.

Senate Democrats, who had helped negotiate a 2015 transportation funding package that ran into opposition in the House, listed a transportation as one of their priorities for 2016.

“I don’t think anybody expects a transportation package to pass this session,” said Senate Majority Whip Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton. “I do think a lot of people think we will have robust public conversation about it in multiple committees because I think the vast majority of us agree that without a transportation package we are going to be struggling, and it is going to be more expensive for businesses to get their goods to market. It’s going to take longer for people to get to work. We are more at risk for bridge collapses not just from earthquakes but from other causes so we need to be thinking hard about how we invest in Oregon’s transportation infrastructure in ways that protect our future.”

Capital Bureau reporter Paris Achen contributed to this story.