Democrats kept their majorities in the Oregon state Legislature in the November election, but they lost their supermajority in both chambers. That means they’ll need a little more support from Republicans to pass some bills. This week, legislators have convened at the capital to talk about priorities for the next session. Dan Rayfield, speaker of the house, joins us to talk about how he’s approaching the legislature in 2023.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. With the next legislative session about five weeks away, we’re going to get a preview today from two top lawmakers. Later this hour, we’ll talk with a Senate minority leader, Bend Republican Tim Knopp. We start with Dan Rayfield. He is a Democratic state representative from Corvallis and the speaker of the house. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Dan Rayfield: Thanks so much for having me.
Miller: What do you see as the most urgent issues the state is facing that lawmakers should take up in January?
Rayfield: I lump them into three categories. And just as a reminder, we have six months to really accomplish a lot of things. The first one that we heard loud and clear from people in Oregon is that we just need to make things work. If you think about housing and homelessness, behavioral health, we have a public defense crisis getting better outcomes in education. We just need to make that stuff work. I think we’ll have some packages during the session that will really start to address those issues.
We also need to invest in Oregonians. They’re our biggest asset. It’s our infrastructure. It is the bread and butter. So you think about investing in the workforce. We have workforce shortages, shortages and nursing. We have shortages in our education side of things. Semiconductors, there’s a tremendous opportunity to bring billions of dollars to the state and really create family wage jobs into the future. Also there’s opportunities with tons of infrastructure money in the state where we’re looking at buying local products, really, they kind of are Oregon, buy America-type opportunities that we can go into.
And then the third category, that I think as we’re walking into the session, is strengthening our democracy. So thinking about campaign finance reform, voters overwhelmingly support this. We have to get this done. There’s ways to improve our ethics and build trust within the government. I think that this is more important than ever. I think there’s ways to reform our electoral system, the way we elect our electors so rank choice voting. We’re making sure that the majority of voters are having their voices heard and who represents them in Salem. And then finally along that vein, I think there’s a responsibility that we have as elective leaders to build a culture of respect in the legislature, especially as we see a lot of the discomfort and frustration that you see on the federal level that all of us have with the government. I think there’s an opportunity for us to lead in individual legislators to build a culture of respect.
Miller: Let’s go through all of these as much as we can, one by one. Starting with what you’ve listed as one of your first priorities in that trio, housing and homelessness, you said you want to make Oregon work. What specifically do you want to do in terms of housing and homelessness?
Rayfield: I think it doesn’t matter what community you’re in. If we’re walking around, we see the needs in housing and homelessness and I would put them in a continuum of things that we have to work on. One is the immediacy of the needs. So, if you’re looking around and thinking about homelessness, there’s an immediacy of that crisis providing the support and the services. Then on the other end of that continuum is home ownership and everything in between. You can say there’s no question that getting into affordable housing is challenging. Renting, we’re seeing rents skyrocket and people are on the verge of becoming homeless and that obviously has other impacts as well. So, what I would point out is there’s a continuum of things that need to be worked on from supply to services. You have an incoming governor that has a vision for how she would like to handle the housing and homelessness crisis. We have the legislature and they have their vision. Representative Dexter in the legislature has been working on the different types of investments as well as policies that could come that will really focus on everything from supply to immediate support.
Miller: What exactly can the public sector, what can the state government do, in terms of supply, given that the vast majority of units that are built anywhere, are built with private money?
Rayfield: In the last year we’ve spent more than a billion dollars in investments into housing. Some of this money goes into supporting the development of affordable housing. That’s a component that we have worked on in the past that has been extremely successful in all four corners of the state because it’s not just a Portland’s issue, it’s not just am Eastern Oregon issue, it’s everywhere. So having a balanced program that is able to continue to support the growth of affordable housing, think of the LIFT (Let’s Invest for Tomorrow) Program that has been extremely successful in Oregon.
Additionally, we’ve done other things like down payment assistance programs. As you think about the continuum of housing, moving people out of a rental space into home ownership increases the supply of affordable housing. So there are other creative ways that we can incentivize moving people along that continuum.
Miller: What do you intend to do in terms of mental health care and behavioral health care in Oregon? And when I say behavioral, I’m specifically thinking about addiction care?
Rayfield: I think that it is good to distinguish the two. In the last two years you had ballot Measure 110 that passed. As a result of that, we had an influx of state dollars into behavioral health substance abuse treatment. And again, you think about that in total funds of money coming into the state. Part of what we have to do, and why I put this into this category of we need to make things work, [is that] it takes time to build up infrastructure. This is a tremendous amount of investment. Remember this was something that the voters wanted to see. I think all of us want to see this in our community. We have to make sure that that money is actually working. and we’re achieving the outcomes that we expect. We’re two years in, so I expect our House Committee on Behavioral Health to be able to look into this and actually ask that question and look at, is this getting the outcomes that we expected?
Miller: And how are you going to decide that for yourself? You say two years in, voters saying yes to Measure 110, but a lot less than two years in terms of the money really going out the door and programs, especially new ones, being up and running. It’s more like six months or maybe a year, in terms of when some of the money first started going out. So I think these groups would say we’re still ramping up. But I’m curious what you’re going to be looking for in terms of your oversight role to say “this is working” or “this is not working.”
Rayfield: That was a tremendously important point that I don’t think a lot of folks in the community feel. You are absolutely right that this is money that is just hitting communities right now. However, in that process from when we started to where we are, there are lessons learned that are being examined about how to do this better. I also think as you continue this process, year after year, we’re going to find ways to better tailor our investments to make sure that we’re getting better outcomes. So it is an ongoing process. The other unique variable that we’re going to be dealing with in this session is you’ll be having a new director of behavioral health at Oregon Health Authority (OHA) coming in and that will also play an important role in the governor’s vision and her role as executive bringing this all together.
Miller: You’ve used the word “investments: many times. As some of our listeners may know, lawmakers are going to have a lot less money to spend to allocate in the next two year budget, for the next biennium, than in the current ones, something like $3 billion. At the same time. local governments and cities and nonprofits are also going to have to tighten their belts after a huge influx of federal money from the pandemic that’s not going to keep coming. The spigots are being turned off compared to what they had been for the last couple of years. How are you going to approach that?
Rayfield: I think the one thing for folks listening on the outside is for the last four years, it has been a situation where we have been very fortunate to have a surplus of dollars flowing into the state. In that time, the state took very specific efforts to put some of that money aside. So keep in mind when we start this new budget cycle, we will have historic reserves walking into this legislative session.
Miller: Like under $2 billion? What’s the number you have in terms of reserves right now?
Rayfield: So we will start the session with roughly around $4 billion dollars as a starting fund balance and so that’s kind of just like the money that’s sitting in your checking account. Then we have, you think about your savings account and we have to have really big savings accounts in Oregon. One is the Educational Stability Fund and then we have the Rainy Day Fund. And between the two of those, I believe it’s roughly around $2 billion that we have in those reserve accounts. And there have been reports and you can look at all 50 states. Oregon, by virtue of the way that we have been forward thinking in our budgeting, [is] one of the best states situated to weather a significant economic downturn. So that’s how we come into this situation. But you also have tons of agencies, tons of lobbyists, tons of community advocates, that see a world in which significant investments can change the impact on the ground. So whether it’s housing and homelessness, all the way into think about K-12 education and reducing classroom sizes. So there’s not going to be a shortage of need in the upcoming session, but it’s also not going to be the type of session we’ve had in the past where there were more resources than usual.
Miller: Another change from recent sessions is Democrats will not have supermajorities in either chamber, meaning that Democrats alone in your caucus, won’t be able to raise taxes. You would need some Republican votes to do that. You obviously still will have majorities though. How do you think these together will change the feel of this session?
Rayfield: We feel very good about the position we’re in. I think Oregonians made it clear that they wanted Democrats leading the state. If you think back to 2010, very similar dynamics. It was the first midterm of Democratic presidential term and after the 2010 election, the legislature in the house was tied 30-30. So across the board, we feel very comfortable walking into the session. It feels like a very big win; however, I also think it’s important that we as Democrats take responsibility and look at the enthusiasm gap that we saw and recognize that Oregonians are frustrated. Again, some of these essential services [like] public safety [and] housing and homelessness support are not working the way we think they should work and so we’ve got to own that, and I think we’re up to the task of doing that.
Miller: What did you mean when you said that you’d like to build a culture of respect internally in the legislature in terms of the way you’re dealing with each other?
Rayfield: Maybe we just take it outside as people walking through the community and we’re listening to the news on the federal level, and you’re hearing the turmoil, the agitation and the frustration with politics. I feel that just as much as anyone else. When you walk into a building after an election cycle and you have folks that have been sending mailers against each other saying “so and so don’t care about education,” it’s challenging. Obviously, I’m exaggerating for effect, but in that situation, we all know that there’s a common set of interests that bring us to the building. We all actually do care about education. If all of the 60 legislators in the House talked about it, we would all talk about how we want to have a top tier education program for K-12. We want our education to be the best in the country. And for me, instead of getting into the back and forth of the disagreement, it’s about finding common ground and respecting each other. That this is an amazing process about a discussion of ideas and issues. This is not about personal politics, it’s about our vision for the state. And how do we do that respectfully? We can have conversations about issues and we move away from the politicization of a lot of the issues. And I would also say that politicians have a huge responsibility in this because the same polarization that we see in our communities is very reflective of the way that we can and sometimes treat each other. So we have a responsibility to build that culture of respect.
If you think about what we can do in Oregon to change that national trajectory of polarization, it becomes very daunting, but here in Oregon as individual legislators, as leaders of our caucuses, as just individual legislators alone, we have a responsibility or an obligation to start changing that tone, working together knowing that we are going to disagree, That’s healthy, that’s acceptable, but it’s how we disagree that’s critically important . . .
Miller: If I could just interrupt because we only have two minutes left. I can imagine Republicans saying “yes” to tone matters, respect matters, rhetoric matters, but where the rubber hits the road, will you take our amendments seriously? Will you give our bills a fair shake if you make a deal with us, will you stick to it? This is where it really comes into play. How do you plan to lead as house speaker this session?
Rayfield: So I think the first thing is you form relationships. When you’re building a culture of respect, you form relationships and you have to listen more than you talk. I think that’s really important. You have to find common interests that we share together and you have to assume good intent. In this role, to give you just a quick example, part of what we’re doing is we’re doing an Eastern Oregon trip, going out and I’ll be spending a day with the Republican leader in her district talking to her. And a lot of that is building a relationship, getting to see where she lives, getting to know people in their own communities. I find that to be extremely helpful and that’s an expectation that will be passed down to all of our members. [For] our chairs, there’s an expectation to listen and talk to the Republican vice chairs as we build policy. I think there’s fundamental, core principles that we operate with as you build that cultural respect in the legislature.
Miller: Dan Rayfield, thanks very much for joining us today. We will talk again.
Rayfield: Thank you so much.
Miller: Dan Rayfield is a representative from Corvallis. He is the speaker of the house.
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