Following adjournment of a whirlwind 2021 legislative session Saturday, Oregon lawmakers within the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) caucus hosted a press conference Monday to talk about what they were able to achieve and what’s left on the table that they’re still eager to accomplish.
With some heavy lifting on issues from police accountability and social equity to healthcare and housing, the 12-member BIPOC caucus had a hand in just about every major issue that came before Oregon’s legislature this year. That’s not to mention major efforts in responding to the needs of many Oregonians who are still in recovery mode following the pandemic.
With more than 140 bills passed by Democrats who hold majorities in both chambers, a majority of those have the fingerprints of BIPOC lawmakers on them.
Before diving into their accomplishments, lawmakers held a moment of silence for Lawanda Manning, the wife and chief of staff of their colleague, Sen. James Manning, Jr., who passed away two weeks ago.
“I think our greatest tribute to Lawanda is making sure that we give James Manning our additional support,” said Sen. Lew Frederick, D-North Portland. “She and James had plans for them to change the future. Plans are still there, Lawanda’s force of nature will keep them going.”
Some of the highlights the caucus focused on from the session included passing more than two dozen bills related to police accountability. Those efforts were led largely by Sen. Frederick in the Senate and Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, who have been staunch advocates of reforming systems that perpetuate oppression of BIPOC communities, in particular Black communities.
Bills on law enforcement accountability ranged from measures looking to improve how Oregon recruits and trains police officers, to strengthening a community’s ability to provide oversight of police. New laws also modify how police interact with protesters, and seek to have law enforcement officers speak up or interject when they see misconduct by their fellow officers.
“Behind all of these concepts is a change from being police officers as warriors to police officers as protectors,” Frederick said.
Rep. Teresa Alonso-Leon spoke briefly about efforts to improve Oregon’s education system.
One such bill is the “Student Voice Bill,” which will create a legislative task force that will allow lawmakers to hear directly from students about their needs and concerns.
School districts are now required to allow Native American students to wear regalia of cultural significance at public school events. Another bill seeks to end disparities in early childhood education around suspension and expulsions.
That all comes on the heels of a historic $9.3 billion schools budget, the largest ever passed by the legislature.
“This will allow many students to catch up and prepare for next year,” Alonso-Leon said.
Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, touched on efforts by the legislature to not only respond to housing concerns exacerbated by the pandemic, but to also take a whack at defeating Oregon’s housing crisis and apply an equity lens in how the state delivers homeless services.
House Bill 2100, which passed handily in both chambers and awaits Gov. Kate Brown’s signature, attempts to modernize Oregon’s homeless services system. It’s the first major piece of legislation to take up this issue in 30 years.
“The bill does a breadth of things including seeking to increase the availability of culturally responsive services to address the well-documented disparities for people of color in homelessness and housing instability,” Campos said.
For Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, responding to the rising cost of healthcare and protecting access and affordability for all Oregonians was a goal this session.
She and her colleagues were able to take up ambitious measures such as HB 3352 — also known as “Cover All People — which dedicates $100 million to extend Medicaid benefits to undocumented residents who would be eligible for healthcare if not for their immigration status.
“This commitment to equity by our state will help all Oregonians across the entire state access health care they need when they need it,” she said.
Salinas also worked on legislation that directs healthcare providers and insurers to collect data to help the state identify gaps and inequities in how they deliver services.
In that same vein of healthcare, Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-North/Northeast Portland, spoke briefly about the legislature’s attempts to bolster the state’s behavioral health system where Oregon currently ranks near the bottom.
HB 3069 implements a new “988” telecommunications system, much like that of 911 but for a trained and targeted response to mental health crises. HB 2470 allows mental health programs to partner with law enforcement to ensure that people who are responding to mental health crises have the skills and training to respond, as well as to connect people in their communities to the resources they need.
For some of the first-term lawmakers in the BIPOC caucus like Campos, the help from more seasoned legislators like Salinas and Leon to help champion their bills was crucial.
“We were really supported in feeling comfortable and going and asking questions in the ambitions that we had this session,” Campos said. “We had a pretty fantastic freshman class too. We were able to lean upon one another to learn from another’s perspective.”
Some of the major items left untended include mandatory minimum prison sentences. A Senate bill that would have taken a hard look at Measure 11 — a topic lawmakers have long said they want to tackle — died in the final days of the session as deals were cut and other priorities took a front seat.
HB 2002, another effort around mandatory sentencing that contained many more provisions around policing reform, also died without a vote.
Farmworker overtime and universal representation are two more issues that fell by the wayside as the clock ran out, but on all these topics, BIPOC lawmakers say they’re still committed to finding solutions and passing legislation.
“By approaching legislation using an intersectionality lens, we will continue to advance the racial justice movement started by leaders who paved the way for all of us to be here,” said Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham.
Members of the caucus agreed that they’ll all be taking a much-needed break from their legislative work in July to spend time with family, relax and recharge as they look ahead to a huge effort on redrawing Oregon’s state and federal legislative maps that will likely be a tough fight between Democrats and Republicans come August and September.
“It’s clear that we are celebrating all that we’ve accomplished this session, but we are not done,” said Rep. Khanh Pham, D-East Portland. “We are looking ahead, already, about what our top priorities are for 2022… We’re so excited and so proud of what we’ve accomplished, and look forward to continuing to advance our priorities for racial justice and equity across the state.”