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Oregon Legislature begins 2023 session with focus on housing and homelessness

Governor Tina Kotek takes her oath of office, with her wife , Aimee Kotek Wilson, by her side at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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Governor Tina Kotek takes her oath of office, with her wife , Aimee Kotek Wilson, by her side at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2022.

As the 2023 Oregon legislative session begins in earnest on Tuesday, there's new leadership, a host of new faces and some very familiar problems.

It’s the first legislative session with new Gov. Tina Kotek in the governor’s office rather than leading the state House. For the first time since 2003, the Senate will have a new president in Democrat Rob Wagner, of Lake Oswego. In the House, Dan Rayfield, from Corvallis, will start his first full term as Speaker. And nearly one-third of lawmakers will be freshmen.

But most of the pressing agenda items are long-standing ones. Atop the list: the state’s ongoing housing crisis.

Kotek, who took office last week, has declared a homelessness state of emergency and called for an increase in the production of new housing units. She’s also asked the Legislature to move swiftly to approve $130 million to help more than 1,000 Oregonians who are at high risk of losing their homes.

Democrats, who control both legislative chambers but lack the supermajorities they’ve enjoyed in recent sessions, have signaled they are aligned with Kotek’s plan and are preparing to quickly dedicate money to keeping the state’s most vulnerable housed, in particular: people living with disabilities, veterans and children placed in foster care who are aging out of the system.

“We have an opportunity to improve housing supply, provide supports to those who are houseless, create pathways to homeownership, and ensure the historic investments we have made in housing, mental health care, addiction services are making an impact on the ground,” Rayfield said when he was sworn in as House Speaker.

Another item high on the to-do list for lawmakers this session is to take a closer look at the state’s behavioral health programs and treatment facilities. When Oregon voters approved the 2020 drug decriminalization law Measure 110, part of the deal was funding more treatment programs. But the money has been slow to get out the door delaying the availability of treatment while people struggling with mental health and addiction problems continue to increase.

Democratic lawmakers have pledged once again to put limits on campaign contributions, something they have repeatedly failed to do despite promising it. They have promised to take a closer look at making Oregon’s laws even more protective of the right to an abortion and how to ensure healthcare workers are protected from any criminal litigation that could stem from providing abortions to people coming from other states. They are considering how to strengthen the state’s gun laws and will be looking at a range of options from banning what are known as ghost guns, raising the age to purchase handguns and ensuring the voter-approved Measure 114 new permitting process to buy a firearm is adequately funded. (A Harney County judge has issued an injunction that has prevented Measure 114 from taking effect.)

There will be bills on how to improve the state’s workforce shortage, reduce property crimes, support teachers and improve how we fight wildfires. Lawmakers will also decide which programs deserve state money and what needs to be trimmed as part of approving the next two-year budget.

One of the relatively newer agenda items will be ensuring Oregon can capitalize on money coming from the federal government to support the semiconductor industry. When President Joe Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, that sent billions in funding to the industry. If Oregon is able to leverage those federal funds, some lawmakers believe it could funnel billions to the state in the next decade, helping the economy and creating jobs.

At the start of nearly every Oregon legislative session, there is a sense of optimism in Salem, a feeling of hope that Republicans and Democrats can overcome partisan bickering, avoid disruptive walkouts (which will be harder this session thanks to voter-approved Measure 113 to curb walkouts) and actually work together to address the myriad of crises currently facing the state.

With lawmakers heading back to Salem on Tuesday for a session scheduled to last until the end of June, that aspirational feeling is here once again. Public committee hearings will be in person for the first time since 2020, although remote options are still available.

“I ask all of us to consider what is our responsibility, as leaders of this state, to build community instead of succumbing to the pressures of a political system that incentivizes demonizing each other,” Rayfield said in his inauguration day speech.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lauren Dake is a political reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Before OPB, Lauren spent nearly a decade working as a print reporter. She’s covered politics and rural issues in Oregon and Washington.