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Legislative Preview: Oregon Lawmakers To Tackle Big Problems During 2021 Session

The Oregon House chambers in 2019
Kaylee Domzalski / OPB
The Oregon House chambers in 2019

Oregon lawmakers will begin debating new bills during the legislative session on Friday. JPR’s Erik Neumann spoke with our Salem correspondent, Dirk VanderHart, about what the big topics are this session.

Erik Neumann: There are hundreds of bills that have been proposed for the legislature to hear. What are the major pieces of legislation that's being considered this year? What stands out?

Dirk VanderHart: Well, in fact, there are thousands of bills this year that have been proposed. Obviously, the state has been grappling with COVID and wildfires and a sagging economy. I think leading legislators really are thinking of this as a crisis response session. They will be focusing on helping the state recover in any ways they can, that said, there are some big things legislators absolutely have to do. The first is passing a new two-year budget, which is likely to be challenging given the economic downturn we've seen in Oregon and the second really big thing is redrawing the state's 90 legislative districts and, likely, six congressional districts if we get an additional congressman after the Census. That's a process that happens every ten years. It has a huge amount of sway in who holds power in Oregon.

EN: Are there any bills that are of particular interest to Southern Oregon or rural parts of the state?

DV: Absolutely. I think probably foremost are bills that are going to be addressing the ongoing wildfire recovery. In fact, Senator Jeff Golden of Ashland is chairing a senate committee that will be focused specifically on that. I think we're likely to see bills in a couple different areas. One is obviously continuing to fund efforts to restore the communities that were devastated by last year's fires. The second is a larger bill that's focused on helping Oregon prepare for future wildfires. That involves things like increasing the number of firefighters that respond but also steps like increased thinning in state lands or new rules for safeguarding buildings that might make Oregon less susceptible to what we saw in 2020.

EN: What about the propositions that Oregon voters approved in November? There is the psilocybin mushroom use for therapy, drug decriminalization, and campaign finance limits. Will the implementation of those voter-approved laws be addressed in any way this session?

DV: Yeah, absolutely. I think in particular lawmakers are looking at Measure 110, that drug decriminalization measure. This is a measure that came with some really aggressive timelines: possession of small amounts of street drugs stops being a crime on February 1st, and then the state has to set up treatment centers around Oregon pretty quickly as well. So, lawmakers are going to be really focused on trying to grapple with that measure and also with any unintended consequences that might arise from it.

EN: A minute ago you mentioned redistricting, which is where lawmakers create maps for both new state legislative and congressional districts. That's usually a pretty divisive process. What are the chances that lawmakers can agree on new districts this year?

DV: Well, that's right. Historically this is a very divisive thing. It's incredibly rare for the legislature to successfully pass a new redistricting plan actually. Most often it gets punted to the secretary of state who takes the reins if they fail. This year we have a very interesting situation where Democrats are dominant in Salem. Not only do they control the legislature and the governor's office, but they now also control the secretary of state's office since Democrat Shemia Fagan won that race in 2020. I think this is still likely to be extremely contentious, but it doesn't really seem like there's much Republicans can do to stop the process, even if they really disagree with the direction some of the new maps are going. Democrats are likely just to have a very big say in whatever the ultimate plan is.

EN: Some people are concerned that the Capitol is closed this year because of the pandemic. How can people participate this year if they want to?

DV: The legislature has a website that will stream every committee hearing. Those will be conducted virtually at least in the near term and for that lawmakers will actually be accepting testimony either via phone or your computer. This has created a debate: to some people this seems like shutting the public out of the process when typically they've been invited into the Capitol, but I think a lot of Democrats would argue that this actually makes participating in the legislative session easier than ever before. You don't have to drive to Salem in the middle of the day to testify on a bill that you care about now. Now you can do it from home or work or wherever you happen to be with an internet connection.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.