Oregon legislators set to look at budget fixes, letting inmates vote — and self-service gasoline
Short sessions of the state Legislature were originally designed for budget adjustments, but Democrats have the majority and major policy goals.
Oregon lawmakers met earlier this month to talk about their priorities for the upcoming legislative session, and a familiar pattern emerged.
Republicans, in the minority in both the state House and Senate, warned of Democratic overreach and reminded their counterparts that the 35-day, every-two-years short session of the Legislature is primarily intended for budget adjustments.
Democrats, meanwhile, unveiled ambitious policy ideas, including plans to reduce housing costs, improve access to childcare and improve Oregonians’ job prospects.
Welcome to the 2022 session, which kicks off Tuesday .
The Capitol doors are open to the public, but COVID-19 protocols are in place: that means social distancing, masking and committee meetings held virtually. For the first time, visitors must pass through metal detectors and X-ray machines.
As pre-session previews suggest, the basic questions facing legislators haven’t changed: Can Democrats push through their crowded progressive agenda? Will Republicans leave town to block votes on items they oppose? But many of the players have changed, and that could change the dynamics in Salem.
Nearly every legislative session, certain bills generate buzz. This session, Reps. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, and Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, want to allow Oregonians to pump their own gas. Lawmakers are also expected to consider proposals to change administrative rules preventing farm workers from earning overtime and to send a one-time state stimulus payment to frontline workers who were employed throughout the pandemic.
And lawmakers will try again to adopt campaign contribution limits. This session could be their final chance before the issue is taken straight to the voters.
Here’s a quick look at some of the more noteworthy things to follow:
Money to spend, but on what?
The state’s financial picture continues to be rosy, thanks to booming tax revenues and help from the federal government. A revenue forecast scheduled for the second week of session will offer more clarity about how much the Legislature has to spend.
Democratic lawmakers have already estimated they could spend up to $2 billion dollars in the upcoming five weeks. As part of that, Gov. Kate Brown wants $200 million to help historically underserved Oregonians find new careers, a project dubbed “Future Ready Oregon,” She also seeks $120 million to relocate Portland’s Harriet Tubman Middle School and another $400 million to preserve and create affordable housing.
Both personal and corporate tax collections have set records in the state recently and continue to outpace economist expectations. Although the state’s financial health appears positive, economists have pointed out increased income tax growth is connected to rising inflation. An economic downturn could quickly lead to revenue losses.
Can the state’s housing crisis be solved?
Oregon was suffering from a housing crisis even before COVID-19 struck.
Thousands of Oregonians remain on the verge of eviction, and far too many are already living on the streets. In December, lawmakers met in a one-day special session to approve $100 million to replenish the state’s rental assistance program and another $100 million to create a system of more localized eviction-prevention services.
In the next 35 days, they will consider another big pot of money to help with housing. That could include paying to create more housing stock and preserve existing affordable housing. Lawmakers will consider proposals to to streamline building permits and to expand the urban-growth boundaries.
Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, is pushing for more money for Project Turnkey, an effort to convert hotels, motels and other spaces into both temporary shelters and long-term housing. And in light of last summer’s heat waves, which killed more than 90 people in Oregon, lawmakers hope to ensure tenants are able to connect to cooling centers and make sure landlords permit the use of window air conditioning units.
New faces, new approach?
Over the past few years, the relationship between Democrats and Republicans has been tense. Both parties have new leadership.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, the longest-tenured speaker in Oregon history, resigned from the Legislature recently to focus on her bid for governor. She will likely be replaced by Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.
The Democrats also have a new party leader in the House in Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, as do the Republicans in Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson. Former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan’s tenure was marked by a particularly difficult working relationship with Democrats, especially former speaker Kotek. Drazan called for Kotek’s formal censure on the House floor last fall after the speaker broke a deal granting Republicans an equal say in redistricting. Drazan has also left the Legislature to focus on a run for governor.
Rayfield’s politics largely align with Kotek’s — both are proud progressives — but some lawmakers hope that new leadership could result in a more constructive working relationship between the parties.
This session will also be the last for the governor, who cannot run again due to term limits, and for Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who is both the state’s longest-serving state lawmaker and the longest-serving Senate president.
Changes to the justice system
In any session, some of the most high-profile bills revolve around how Oregon tweaks its justice system.
This year, Democrats have proposals to restrict police officers’ ability to pull over drivers for things like broken tail lights, and ensure that people pulled over know they can refuse a search of their vehicle. They’re also looking to offer relief to inmates convicted by non-unanimous jury verdicts – a mechanism the U.S. Supreme Court has said is unconstitutional – and to make it easier for people convicted of crimes to get state-issued professional state licenses, such as those for teachers or hairdressers, despite their record.
The Legislature is also likely to take up tweaks to changes it made in recent years over how police handle crowd control situations. Lawmakers could make Oregon one of the only states that allows adults in state custody to vote, and offer cash payments to people wrongly imprisoned for a crime they did not commit.
Republicans are expected to introduce a proposal to limit the governor’s power to commute prisoners’ sentences, after recent outcry from prosecutors over how Brown has used that authority.
And a bit of everything else
Plenty of other interesting issues will be up for grabs, if lawmakers can squeeze in the time to consider them before their March 7 adjournment.
In 2010, Oregon voters agreed to let lawmakers meet every year — adding a biannual short session — largely because of arguments that the state budget needed more attention.
Still, lawmakers routinely make the case that their non-fiscal priorities merit attention during these shorter sessions, too.
A revamped proposal to require truck drivers to swap out conventional diesel fuel with cleaner-burning renewable diesel could see attention this year, as the state continues to grapple with reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. A similar bill went nowhere in 2021.
Three separate campaign finance bills could test whether lawmakers have the will to tackle the always-contentious issue. There are also bills to increase pay for lawmakers and state judges, and Republicans have several unlikely proposals they hope can rein in the governor’s emergency powers and outlaw vaccine mandates.
The most controversial bill of the session could be a proposal to grant farmworkers overtime pay, which would be phased in over a course of years, and which farmers warn could be disastrous for their bottom line. Democrats considered a similar policy in 2021, but wound up punting on the issue.
In a meeting with reporters on Jan. 25, Breese-Iverson, the House Republican, signaled out the farmworker overtime proposal as a poster child for what she and other Republicans see as Democratic overreach in a short session. She said her members were reserving all options – including a walkout – to block bills.
OPB reporter Sam Stites contributed to this report.
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