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After record-breaking legislative walkout, Oregon 2023 legislative session ends in crush of bills

FILE: The Oregon Senate is seen in session at the state Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, June 15, 2023.
Andrew Selsky
FILE: The Oregon Senate is seen in session at the state Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, June 15, 2023.

Over the course of eight frantic days, the House and Senate rushed to pass hundreds of bills, most with little or no discussion. The tumult left some lawmakers with little positive to say when asked how they’d describe the session.

The Capitol this year felt like a tale of two legislative sessions.

It was the best of times: In the first three months, lawmakers quickly and smoothly passed bipartisan bills to pave the way for more housing and attract new semiconductor activity.

It was the worst of times: Fractured over proposals on abortion and guns, the Senate saw the longest legislative walkout in state history. The six-week boycott ratcheted up rhetoric and pushed the session to the brink of collapse. It also will likely ensure 10 conservative lawmakers can’t seek reelection.

And in a final bewildering sprint that ended at 4:27 p.m. on Sunday, the session was chaos.

Over the course of eight frantic days, the chambers rushed to pass hundreds of bills, most with little or no discussion. The session concluded less than eight hours before lawmakers were require to adjourn under the state Constitution.

The tumult left some lawmakers with little overtly positive to say when asked how they’d encapsulate the session.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, called it “untidy.” To Monmouth Democratic Rep. Paul Evans it was “a challenging, exasperating, impossible-to-accurately-explain kind of ride.”

Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, nodded to a $500 million renovation that turned the Capitol into an active construction site throughout the session. “We’ve got all the normal egos, pressure and challenges with half the space and constant pounding and grinding going on,” he said. “What could go wrong?”

Acrimony and delay tested the abilities of a new crop of legislative leaders, and will be a big piece of the session’s legacy. But lawmakers had done a lot by the time the final gavels fell -- from putting record funding toward schools and housing, to trying to prop up a deeply broken public defense system, to granting Oregonians permission to pump their own gas.

“Sometimes it’s not pretty along the way,” Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said shortly after the session adjourned. “But the evidence is the bills that we pass, the budgets that we pass.”

His counterpart in the House, Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, called it “one of the most exciting and meaningful sessions I’ve ever been a part of.”

Republicans were also feeling accomplished.

“Senate Republicans were finally able to give the nearly 2 million Oregonians we represent a voice in the Senate and a seat at the table,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said in a statement. “We protected the rights of parents and law-abiding gun owners, restored the rule of law, and forced good-faith bipartisanship to get good things done.”

Here’s a rundown of some of the session’s highlights.

For the first time in two decades, the Senate had a new leader. Wagner took over the gavel from Peter Courtney, the longest-tenured chamber leader in state history.

The learning curve was steep. Even before the session began, Wagner was attacked as “untrustworthy” by Knopp, the Republican leader. The relationship only got worse from there.

Knopp announced in an early-session press conference that Republicans would insist on requiring Democrats to read bills in full before a vote — a delay tactic used to give the minority party leverage.

Republicans were soon accusing Wagner and other Democrats of violating state law requiring bill summaries to be written at an eighth-grade reading level and of queuing up extreme bills.

“If someone isn’t willing to follow the rules or the law, the public should be deeply disturbed,” Knopp said of Wagner.

Democrats paid little heed to the Republican objections until May 3, when GOP senators launched a walkout to block a bill on abortion and gender-affirming care.

The maneuver set off a 42-day slog in which negotiations between the parties broke down repeatedly. An effort to broker a peace by Gov. Tina Kotek — brand new to her role, as well — went nowhere.

Finally, on June 15, the parties finalized an agreement. In exchange for a series of notable concessions by Democrats, enough Republicans returned to the Senate to allow the chamber to pass bills.

If the GOP won back some ground, the victory came at a hefty cost. By walking away, 10 conservative senators ran afoul of a new law, and are likely unable to run for reelection.

Things went far more smoothly in the House, Rayfield and Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, began cultivating a working relationship during last year’s legislative session. The leaders navigated their members through the session with comparably little controversy.

“I think we have formed a friendship if you will,” Breese-Iverson said of Rayfield mid-way through the session.

Rayfield returned the sentiment Sunday, calling Breese-Iverson “wonderful to work with.”

Lawmakers were optimistic in January, in part because there was agreement from both parties on the most pressing issues facing the state: housing and homelessness.

Before the walkout and political scandals overshadowed the session, lawmakers passed an ambitious $200 million housing package. The measure, approved in March, gives cities across the state an infusion of cash to address the housing crisis and earmarks $27 million for rural counties. Cities will also be required for the first time to set and meet affordable housing building targets. In addition, the bill contains a larger philosophical shift when it comes to the state’s land-use laws and aims to streamline the often-litigious and lengthy process of bringing more land inside the urban growth boundary.

Besides the marquee housing package, lawmakers passed a stricter rent-control measure, ensuring rental costs can’t increase by more than 10%, regardless of inflation. There also were bills to make it easier for renters to stay housed and to help first-timehomebuyers purchase a home.

On the final day of the session, lawmakers considered House Bill 3414,a measure to allow cities to unilaterally expand urban growth boundaries, cutting through a lot of red-tape in what is usually a lengthy process. This measure would have sidestepped the normal process for expanding urban growth boundaries.

A standoff over the bill, and heartburn from some Democrats over what it would do, delayed votes for hours on Saturday. The bill was a priority for Gov. Tina Kotek, who has set ambitious housing production goals.

In the end, enough Democratic senators voted against the measure to kill it, a stinging loss for the first-term Democratic governor. A visit by Kotek to the Senate chamber shortly after the vote was not enough to revive the bill.

The defeat was, in a way, a tangible political casualty of the walkout. Ironically, the five conservative Senators still boycotting Salem may have been the key votes to turn the tide in Kotek’s favor.

Oregon lawmakers may have come into the session optimistic, but they were also feeling insecure.

Once a national darling for its semiconductor research prowess, the state in recent years has sat spurned as states like Ohio and Arizona notched major projects. Lawmakers were bent on reversing that tide.

One of the session’s first major acts was to set Oregon up to be competitive for some of the $52 billion in federal cash made available by the CHIPS and Science Act. By early April, the Legislature had approved a whopping $210 millionto help local companies develop projects that could qualify for even more federal money. Lawmakers kicked in another $50 million after a revenue forecast showed the state had nearly $2 billion more to spend than anticipated.

In a controversial move, the Legislature also gave Gov. Tina Kotek unprecedented authority to rejigger the invisible lines that dictate where development can and cannot occur under the state’s 50-year-old land use laws. The tool will be necessary if Oregon finds itself in desperate need of hundreds of acres of new industrial land to be competitive for federal funds — something that’s far from certain at this point.

Lawmakers didn’t stop with that early package. Cheered on by business groups, they worked up a new tax credit that will benefit semiconductor companies that expand their research and development activities in the state.

But the $4 million maximum tax breaks per company they eventually passed were far lower than the $10 million credits initially proposed. Total tax credits to all applicants will max out at $35 million over the next two years — a number business lobbyists will work to grow in the future.

“I think at one point they wanted a $300 million research and development tax credit,” Rayfield said last week. “That was never, ever realistic.”

The measure at the heart of the longest legislative walkout in state history does a lot. It protects medical providers from prosecution if they provide an abortion to people traveling from anti-abortion states and it expands insurance coverage to include laser hair removal and facial feminization surgery for people seeking gender-affirming care.

But the part of the measure that spurred Republicans to boycott the Senate chamber centered on parental rights. As originally drafted, the measure would have made it explicit that minors under the age of 15 didn’t need a parent’s permission for an abortion. Republicans and their allies railed against that provision, calling it an affront to parents’ rights.

As part of the deal to bring Republicans back to the Capitol, Democrats agreed to keep in place a legal requirement that parental permission is required for children under 15 to end a pregnancy. But that requirement can be overridden if two health providers in separate medical practices conclude informing parents would be harmful to the child, according to a briefing with key players engaged in the negotiations.

Democrats also agreed to nix portions of the bill expanding abortion access on university campuses and in rural parts of the state.

Republicans won significant concessions on the session’s major gun control bill. Democrats had hoped to increase the age to purchase and own most guns from 18 to 21 and allow cities to ban concealed weapons in public buildings. But in order to end the legislative boycott, Democrats scrapped those two components in the session’s major gun control bill.

The only part of House Bill 2005 to make it into law, will be the component banning “ghost guns,” 3-D printed firearms without serial numbers that are assembled at home and can be easily purchased online.

Democrats also agreed to killSenate Bill 348 and a handful of other gun bills that would put some provisions of Measure 114, a gun safety law approved by voters last year, into statute. The ballot measure is currently on hold amid court challenges. It banned the sale or transfer of extended capacity magazine clips and required a permit to purchase a gun, among other restrictions.

Oregon has long had one of the nation’s highest rates of substance abuse, and overdoses are soaring as cheap fentanyl floods the drug market.

After two sessions where they put more than $1 billion of state and federal money toward addiction and mental health services, lawmakers were more measured this year. They levied a 40-cent monthly tax on phone lines as part of a $153 million spending plan. The tax is expected to raise roughly $33 million over the next two years, and will be used to fund the 9-8-8 crisis hotline and community mobile crisis teams.

With House Bill 2395, the Legislature also ensured that the overdose-reversal drug naloxone will be far more available to the public.

And lawmakers passed a couple bills that tweak Measure 110, the drug decriminalization measure passed by voters in 2020.

One gives the Oregon Health Authority a more muscular role in funding treatment services around the state. The other makes it a misdemeanor to possess more than a gram — or five or more “user units” — of a substance containing fentanyl. Unlike other drugs, fentanyl had no misdemeanor-level possession under Oregon law following decriminalization. The tweak is designed to levy criminal consequences for small-time dealers of the drug.

Democrats refused to consider more sweeping changes to Measure 110, including an insistence by many Republicans that criminal consequences to drug possession should be brought back while the state expands its treatment options. Recent polling suggests most Oregonians would favor that change.

Lawmakers have known for years that the state’s threadbare public defense system is likely unconstitutional. Now it’s worse than ever, with hundreds of people languishing in jail without an attorney.

The ongoing crisis was one of the most pressing issues facing lawmakers this year. In response, they poured more than $100 million into the system to increase pay for public defenders, and fundamentally shifted the structure of the state system. UnderSenate Bill 337,the state will move away from contracting for public defense with outside groups, and instead hire more defense attorneys itself.

“This is a step in the right direction towards a more sustainable approach to public defense in Oregon,” said Jessica Kampfe, who runs the state’s Office of Public Defense Services.

Lawmakers also took steps to ensure that people convicted by a nonunanimous verdict in Oregon — a practice that the Supreme Court has deemed illegal — can petition for a retrial.

And they passed bills creating news consequences for domestic terrorism and “paramilitary activity.” House Bill 2772 made it a felony to damage “critical infrastructure,” or disperse toxic substances in some circumstances. Under House Bill 2572, the state could investigate paramilitary activity — regardless of the politics attached — and ask a judge to block planned actions.

In May, lawmakers received very welcome news: Tax revenue was up, and by a lot.

The dramatic spike in funds meant lawmakers had more money to work with as they built the state’s next two-year budget. One of the beneficiaries: the K-12 school budget.

Lawmakers have approved a record amount of spending, putting $10.2 billion into the state school fund, which is $700 million more than current service levels and the most ever put into the fund, according to Democrats. Combined with local property tax revenues, the state’s public school budget should reach about $15.3 billion to be put toward educating the state’s students.

Lawmakers also carved out $140 million to help improve literacy for the state’s youngest students. The money would provide a wide range of support, from funding summer-and-after-school programs to curriculum. Lawmakers also passed a measure requiring Oregon high school students to take courses on how to create a budget, open a bank account, understand taxes and other general personal finance skills.

Democrats now have a well established pattern when it comes to reining in political giving in Oregon: After touting new campaign finance rules as a top priority early in session, they fail to act.

While most people agree Oregon’s current system of no contribution limits is broken, no one can agree on what restrictions should look like. Top Democrats, including Kotek, floated proposals for a new campaign finance system this year, but the issue once again fell by the wayside. The ongoing gridlock on the issue means voters are increasingly likely to be asked to institute limits via a citizen-written ballot measure — perhaps in 2024.

Lawmakers weren’t idle on other election changes though. Democrats passed a bill that will expand Oregon’s pioneering “motor voter” law, which registers people to vote when they interact with Oregon Driver and Motor Services. Under House Bill 2107, people signing up for the Oregon Health Plan could also be registered. That step first needs to be approved by the federal government.

The state also took steps toward using ranked-choice voting — in which voters can pick candidates in order of preference — for statewide and congressional contests. Voters will need to give final approval to that system next year.

Lawmakers also banned the practice of making large campaign contributions in cash, after Willamette Week reported that two cannabis entrepreneurs were giving top Democrats bags full of cash. The practice, while legal, raised questions because such exchanges are difficult to track. As one part of Senate Bill 166, donors could give no more than $100 a year to a candidate in cash.

Early in the session, an internal investigation by the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission revealedtop employees at the state agency diverted specialty bourbonsaway from public consumption for their own personal use for years. The longtime leader of the agency, Steve Marks, stepped aside once the news was revealed. But Gov. Tina Kotek had already demanded his resignation before she learned of the abuse within the agency. Republicans asked the governor to launch an independent investigation into the state agency and the revelations raised more questions about the agency’s costly efforts to build a new distribution warehouse.

The OLCC impropriety was quickly eclipsed, however, by a more shocking moment: the downfall ofSecretary of State Shemia Fagan. A rising star in the Democratic party, Fagan resigned after Willamette Week revealed she had accepted a $10,000-a-month consulting contract from cannabis entrepreneurs and owners of La Mota while her office was auditing the cannabis industry.

Later in the session, lawmakers approved House Joint Resolution 16, asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment in 2024 that would allow legislators to impeach statewide elected officials. The Legislature also proposed creating an independent commission that could set the salaries of lawmakers and other state-level elected officials —partly a nod to Fagan’s complaint that her $77,000 annual salary was not adequate.

With thousands of bills introduced early in the session, there is almost no limit to the issues lawmakers took up this session. Among other notable bills that are finding their way to Kotek’s desk:

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

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake