Politics

5 things to know as Oregon’s legislative session begins

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
Feb. 5, 2024 2 p.m. Updated: Feb. 5, 2024 9:47 p.m.

Oregon’s short legislative session convenes Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

FILE - Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

FILE - Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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On Monday, Oregon state lawmakers head back to Salem for a 35-day legislative sprint. The short legislative session kicks off while communities across the state are still recovering from a brutal ice storm that killed at least 17 people — many due to hypothermia — and as the state’s biggest city grapples with a devastating fentanyl crisis.

Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek is pushing lawmakers to approve $500 million in state funds to expedite new housing developments and overcome a housing shortage the governor believes has worsened the homeless and drug crises playing out on the streets.

“Folks with good jobs can’t find housing. Folks who are struggling with affordability can’t find housing,” Kotek said recently during a legislative preview. “It is an issue around the state.”

It’s only 35 days, but the to-do list is long. Here are five things to know before the session starts.

Housing

The governor plans to introduce one bill this legislative session: Senate Bill 1537.

In some ways, it’s a second crack at a bill Kotek tried, and failed, to get across the finish line last year.

It will include a request for $500 million in state funds to help pay for land, infrastructure and expanding utility services. She is also proposing a new state agency, the Housing Accountability and Production Office, which would help developers and local governments navigate state housing laws in an effort to overcome bureaucratic hoops and expedite building.

But her housing push also includes ideas that generated a lot of pushback last session from members of her own party. Kotek is proposing that cities be granted one-time leeway to bring in land for housing, so long as at least 30% of that housing is made “affordable.”

The bill would allow cities outside of the Portland metro region to unilaterally pull 150 acres of land into their urban growth boundaries for housing if they have a population of at least 25,000. Smaller cities could incorporate up to 75 acres under that bill. Cities in the Portland metro region would have the same criteria, but would have to petition the Metro regional government for approval.

Drugs

Kotek recently said she would sign a bill to once again make possessing small amounts of drugs a criminal offense in Oregon. Kotek’s latest remarks are a departure from her earlier push to support the voter-approved Measure 110, which tried to bolster addiction services and move away from criminalizing people for possession.

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But as the governor looks at any bill the Legislature sends her way, she warned she will be most concerned with what other steps lawmakers take to ensure drug users are being given the option of receiving addiction services.

“I know there’s a lot of focus on the criminalization,” Kotek said. “But I would hope everybody looks at this as a comprehensive package. It is about what you do on the front end as it relates, for example, to the misdemeanor, but it’s also about connecting people with services, making sure we’re planning better, making sure we’re making investments.”

Walkout

The legislative session kicks off while Senate Republicans are still reeling from the recent Oregon Supreme Court decision blocking many of them from running for reelection, based on their decision to stage the state’s longest legislative walkout last year.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, the Senate Republican leader now blocked from seeking reelection, said the ruling could affect the political dynamics in the upcoming short session.

“I think we still win because our members literally have no reason to show up,” Knopp said. “And so in order for them to show up, they’re going to want to see that they’re going to be able to make a difference.”

Relationships

In the Senate, the Oregon Supreme Court ruling could impact the political dynamics. In the House, relationships so far appear easier but nonetheless in flux. The House Republicans have a new leader, Rep. Jeff Helfrich, a Hood River lawmaker.

And House Speaker Dan Rayfield is on his way out.

Rayfield, D-Corvallis, plans to serve through the short session, but then step aside to run for attorney general. Current House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, has been chosen to replace him. So far, leaders in the House have struck an optimistic tone about the start of session, noting they see no major disagreements that could derail the session.

But that isn’t to say relationships in the House won’t be complicated at times — conservative Oregon lawmaker E. Werner Reschke, R-Malin, recently suggested that Muslims, atheists and other non-Christians are unfit to serve in elected office. Another Southern Oregon lawmaker, Dwayne Yunker, R-Grants Pass, claimed supporting LGBTQ+ people was similar to supporting child abuse. He also accused drag queens of pedophilia, according to reporting from the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Rayfield said the work underway in the House will happen while “continuing to build a culture of respect.”

“I feel very proud of the work that the Oregon House has done over the last two sessions to be able to govern and be responsive in a way that is respectful to each other with a common understanding that it doesn’t matter whether you’re Democrat or Republican, we all have the same goals and values when it comes to the big issues facing our communities,” Rayfield said. “And we’ve been able to do that with very difficult issues with respect in the house.”

Money

The first week of session, the state’s economist will deliver the latest revenue forecast. The forecast will give lawmakers a sense of how the economy is doing and what funds are available to balance the budget and spend on housing, behavioral health and addictions services.

The governor said the state has the money to fund her housing priorities.

“We have unspent money from the last biennium that we can access. We’ve had a good revenue forecast. I don’t believe this is the moment to be overly cautious when our bond rating is good. We have resources. We don’t need to raise taxes,” Kotek said. “We just have to make sure that we’re putting things in the right place. I also want to make sure we’re not doing a bunch of new things because they sound good. Let’s focus on housing. Let’s focus on behavioral health. Let’s focus on summer learning. I’ve been very clear with legislative leaders that this isn’t a fancy session. Let’s stick to the basics. Let’s get them funded and we have the money.”

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