A group founded by billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer plans to sink $200,000 into a campaign to promote a carbon cap and pricing plan in Oregon next year, according to the groups involved.
The size of the contribution hints at the huge amounts supporters and opponents of the proposal will likely spend to pass or kill it in the short six-week legislative session that begins in February.
Leading Oregon Democrats including the governor have already said that passing a system that limits carbon emissions by charging firms responsible for creating them is a top policy priority for that session.
Steyer, a former hedge fund manager from California, is the founder and president of NextGen America, an environmental advocacy group with national reach. On Friday, the group announced in a press release that it would spend $75,000 to buy digital ads and organize the push for lawmakers to pass the greenhouse gas regulations in 2018.
But that is only a fraction of what Steyer’s group plans to spend to convince Oregonians and their lawmakers to get behind the climate legislation. NextGen America will also contribute $125,000 to help Portland-based political nonprofit Renew Oregon Action Fund’s field campaign, according to that group’s communications director, Brad Reed. “We’re up against the fossil fuel industry and everyone in D.C. right now,” Reed said.
It’s unusual for moneyed interests to spend heavily to court public opinion with advocacy dollars rather than focus more directly on lining up lawmakers’ votes.
Steyer is not a new player in Oregon politics. He made a fateful 2015 phone call to Gov. Kate Brown to preserve the state’s low-carbon fuel mandate and donated $8,000 to her campaign last year. And he contributed $90,000 that helped launch the Renew Oregon Action Fund, Reed said. The nonprofit has achieved its first two goals: convincing lawmakers to make the state’s low-carbon fuels law permanent in 2015 and getting a law passed in 2016 to eliminate coal from the Oregon’s power mix and double the state’s renewable energy mandate.
Getting the carbon pricing plan passed in February is the group’s third goal. The plan, details of which have yet to be aired publicly, is based on similar proposals that failed to gain steam in previous legislative sessions. In concept, it would cap greenhouse gas emissions and charge some of the state’s largest companies for their carbon output.
Supporters say the plan would raise roughly $1.4 billion per biennium, and a major question is how the state would spend the money. Rep. Ken Helm of Beaverton said he and Sen. Michael Dembrow of Portland expect to release a summary of the bill the week of Dec. 18. The public likely will not see the proposed bill and all its details until January.
Helm said lawmakers plan to simplify oversight of the proposed program but he would not provide any additional details.
There’s controversy over whether lawmakers should pass such a major piece of legislation in the short session. Sessions held in even-numbered years last six weeks, not six months, and are designed to allow lawmakers to fix budget imbalances and address other issues that could not wait until regular legislative sessions.
Reed, with the Renew Oregon Action Fund, said he did not know how much money the group has available to campaign for the carbon pricing plan, but said it would likely be less than the fossil fuel industry could spend. As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, the group does not have to file campaign finance disclosures.
“We’re running on hope and rainbows,” Reed said.
In reality, the campaign will depend on more tried and true political strategies: field organizers in Pendleton, Newport and the Willamette Valley and lobbyists in Salem. And it likely has plenty of cash to do so. Another nonprofit, the Oregon Environmental Council, disclosed in a tax filing with the IRS that it spent more than $1 million to fund the Renew Oregon Action Fund last year.