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What Kate Brown Could Learn From Roger Sherman

July 10th, 2019 by dk

How will Gov. Kate Brown and her Democratic allies in the Oregon legislature react to the hard line taken by Republicans against a statewide response to climate change? The visceral response would be to teach them a lesson. “Let me be clear, I am not backing down,” Brown announced after the legislative session ended.

Brown is weighing her options. She could enact some of the legislation by executive order. She could offer Republicans unrelated concessions, as she did to win passage of the education funding bill in May. She could call a special session, after ringing the capitol building with security fencing to keep legislators inside.

Or Democrats could find a way to make the climate response legislation more palatable to Republican lawmakers, or at least more attractive to their voters. Roger Sherman died 226 years ago, but he could show Democrats the way. I’ll come back to Sherman in a moment.

Proposed climate change responses tend to fall into two camps. Some favor a cap-and-trade program similar to what California started in 2013. Others prefer a carbon tax, like the one Washington voters rejected last November.

Economists often prefer the carbon tax. It simply charges polluters for polluting. Competitors who don’t pollute or pollute less would gain economic advantages. If market forces spur the innovation we need, the government wouldn’t need to keep any of the carbon tax it collects. The funds could be redistributed to customers, offsetting any price increases the innovating industries pass along.

Politicians and pollsters claim they are wary of anything called a tax, even if the revenue collected is passed back to the voters. The cap-and-trade model — rebranded as “cap-and-invest” — allows government to invest in programs that reduce emissions.

What I haven’t found tried elsewhere is a combination of these two models. Oregon could put itself on the leading edge of this debate, by following the lines of compromise set down by Sherman.

Our newborn nation was deeply divided in 1787. Population centers were gaining too much influence over citizens living in rural areas. Does this sound familiar? Sherman proposed a compromise. All citizens would be equally represented in the House of Representatives. But each state would have an equal voice in the Senate.

Here’s how a Sherman Compromise could break the political logjam that Oregon faces over climate response legislation.

Implement the proposed cap-and-invest program. Add a revenue-neutral carbon tax to it. Divide the carbon tax funds into two halves. Send Oregonians two checks. The first check would be equal for all voting-age citizens across the state.

The second would be apportioned equally between Oregon’s 36 counties, and then divided equally between that county’s residents. Multnomah County (population 811,880) would receive the same second portion as Wheeler County (population 1,366).

Rural county residents could anticipate a relative windfall from that second dividend check, pressing their Republican senators to support it. Democrats who are packed into Oregon’s urban counties would receive smaller second checks, but they’d be first to notice cleaner air.

The Sherman Compromise satisfied rural and urban interests. Its corollary could help here.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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