(TNS) — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Senate Democrats are ramping up pressure on House Democrats to acquiesce to a multilayered transportation construction and carbon emissions reduction plan that would completely replace the state's controversial "clean fuels" program.
After weeks of behind-closed-doors negotiations, details of which began to emerge publicly in recent days, the Senate president's office formally released the proposal agreed to by Senate Democrats and Republicans Tuesday evening.
The package includes a string of tax and fee increases: a 4-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase, a $10 vehicle registration fee increase, a $10 driver license fee, and a new payroll tax on workers in some mass transit districts, including Lane Transit District. The LTD tax would total about $63 a year for someone making $34,000 a year in Lane County. It would be paid by the employee, in contrast to LTD's current payroll tax, which is paid by the employer.
Backers say their plan would take more carbon out of the environment than the "clean fuels" initiative would over the next decade, while pulling in almost $300 million through the new taxes and fees annually to pay for work on Oregon's roads, bridges and mass transportation, according to the latest iteration dated Monday show.
Rolling back the "clean fuels" law -- a 10-year mandate to reduce car and truck carbon emissions by 10 percent -- is the only way Democrats can get support from minority Republicans for the tax and fee increases needed to pay for the transportation work, supporters say.
Lawmakers from both parties have said they want to pass a statewide transportation spending package this session.
But environmental groups are skeptical about whether the new proposal would achieve its promised carbon reduction. They say the proposed replacement biofuels-blending program -- which by supporters' estimates accounts for around a third of their hoped-for emission reductions -- has a huge loophole for oil distributors: they would only have to reduce the amount of carbon in their fuels if cleaner replacement fuels are "commercially available, technologically feasible, and cost effective." If they aren't, distributors would not be required to do anything.
Environmental groups also say other emission-reduction elements of the package are overstated or "double counted." For example, one key package element involves redirecting about 20 percent of the public-purpose surcharge that certain utilities now charge ratepayers. Instead of being spent on renewable energy projects and school energy-efficiency projects, as they are now, the funds would be used to pay for new electric vehicle chargers. Another change would require natural-gas utilities to provide up to $10 million a year, likely through rate increases, to help build chargers for vehicles powered by compressed natural gas.
"The burden of responsibility both in terms of paying for the program and reducing pollution is moved from the oil industry to the taxpayer and the alternative fuels industry," the Oregon Environmental Council wrote in an analysis of the proposal this week.
The proposed package does differ sharply from the "clean fuels" law.
Under "clean fuels," oil distributors can reach their carbon reduction goals by blending cleaner biofuels into their product, or by making payments to -- buying "credits" from -- any public or private body that produces or uses biofuels or alternative energy for their transportation needs. The payments are supposed to be an incentive for entrepreneurs and others pursuing new low-carbon energy forms. Oil distributors are expected to pass the expense on to the consumer through higher gas prices: the state has predicted a 4-cent to 19-cent per gallon gas price increase once the full carbon reduction is in place in 2025.
Late Tuesday, lawmakers in the Senate created a new committee to move the proposal, dubbed the "Oregon Sustainable Transportation Act," as an amendment to House Bill 2281. The committee will be led by Sen. Chris Edwards, a Eugene Democrat. The first public hearing is expected to be today, and the package could potentially be voted by the full chamber as early as Friday.
Without changes that draw the support of the environmental lobby, the package may pass the Senate but flounder in the House, observers said. Last week, 19 Democrats signed a letter saying they wouldn't back any deal that involved a full repeal of the "clean fuels" law.
©2015 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.