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With a week remaining, Oregon lawmakers have a lot left to do

The Senate chambers at the Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.
The Senate chambers at the Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

Committee work is largely complete in Salem, so all that's left to do is vote. That could take a long, long time.

The unmistakable signs are everywhere in Oregon’s Capitol: The 2022 legislative session is nearing its end.

State Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, has begun wearing a variety of ornate hats, an annual tradition as the “sine die” vote that will officially end the monthlong session comes closer. And on Monday morning, the session’s major budget bills — always among the last to receive a vote — began their journey out of an influential subcommittee and toward final passage.

Some lawmakers have even begun to allow themselves the always-dangerous hope that the House and Senate might adjourn this week, before their March 7 deadline. On Monday morning, Republican Rep. Greg Smith, of Heppner, asked House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, whether lawmakers would be out the door early. Rayfield’s reply: “I think that is within your caucus’s control.”

Indeed, with the committee work largely over, all that remains of the session is for lawmakers to actually vote on those chosen few bills that have been cleared for passage. But that process appears likely to involve more waiting around than actual action. Republicans in both chambers have signaled they will not waive a constitutional rule that all bills be read in full before final passage, a delay tactic that means lawmakers might spend much of the remaining session sitting around doing nothing particularly productive.

Smith, one of the House’s most moderate Republicans, said Monday he would vote to end bill reading. But with a number of contentious proposals still making their way toward a final vote, it’s not clear his GOP colleagues will agree.

Here’s a rundown of some of the major things lawmakers still hope to accomplish this week — and some high-profile bills that appear to be dead.

Overtime for farmworkers: Well before the session began on Feb. 1, the most controversial subject lawmakers would consider seemed clear. For two sessions running, Democrats have been pushing a new law that would see farmworkers paid at 1.5 times their normal rate once they work more than 40 hours a week.

That policy has been commonplace for workers in other sectors for decades, but farmworkers have been exempt. This session’s proposal, House Bill 4002, was the subject of lengthy hearings. Farmers insist new rules could put them out of business, slash worker hours, and don’t account for the atypical seasonal work they require. Labor groups stand firm that farmworkers should receive the same consideration for their labor as other workers. The bill was scheduled for a vote on the House floor as early as Monday, and would then go to the Senate.

Lots of spending: The Legislature typically allocates billions of dollars in odd years when it passes a biennial budget, but reserves even years for much more modest tweaks. Surging state revenues have thrown that approach out the window this year.

Lawmakers are expected to approve $2.2 billion in new spending from the state’s general fund, and close to $2.7 billion in total new state spending. That money will go toward things such as a $400 million housing package, $200 million for new job training, $100 million for rural Oregon, more money for behavioral health providers, new climate change initiatives, and much more. Lawmakers spend money through a wide variety of bills, but the largest budget bill of the session is House Bill 5202, which allocates $1.4 billion in general fund money.

Justice system changes: Several of the more high profile justice bills of the session appear to have fallen by the wayside. For instance, a bill that would allow people convicted in the past by nonunanimous juries to seek new trials appears dead, as does a bill that would change how the Oregon Department of Corrections decides to release very ill prisoners.

But lawmakers are still set to vote on a bill that would prohibit police from pulling people over for a single burnt out tail light or headlight, and a bill that would grant people imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit $65,000 for each year they were incarcerated. Additionally, lawmakers appear on the verge of making it a misdemeanor to harass an elections worker for doing their job, and to make it a felony to assault a hospital worker on the job.

Payments for low-income Oregonians: After years of failing to find agreement on a pandemic aid package for front-line workers, Democrats suggested a new approach this year: Rather than targeting people for checks based on where they work, they will instead look at how much a person made.

House Bill 4157, which is scheduled for a vote in the House on Wednesday, would send $600 payments to more than a quarter-million taxpayerswho receive a tax credit meant for low- and middle-income families.

Lawmakers are also considering a new $15 million fund for organizations that help people and businesses “whose future is at risk” because of racial discrimination, living in a poor rural area, citizenship status, socioeconomic status, or language proficiency. Republicans have argued that the proposed fund could be unconstitutional, though Democrats believe it would survive a court challenge.

Some big bills in trouble: Lawmakers appear to be punting on some issues that garnered interest and headlines. A bill that would allow gas stations in the state to reserve a portion of their pumps for self-service remains lodged in the budget committee, with no apparent plans that it be revived. So does a bill that would nearly double what the state’s part-time lawmakers earn – from around $33,000 a year to more than $63,000 a year, in line with the state’s average salary.

Another issue that might have to wait until another year: Campaign finance regulations. Despite a late flicker of potential action, lawmakers appear to be ready to punt on proposing a system of campaign contribution limits. Oregon is currently one of a handful of states with no limits on what candidates and causes can accept from donors. Several proposals that could land on the November ballot face a battle in court, after being rejected by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.