Think Out Loud

Halfway through the 2024 legislative session, what is still on the table?

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Feb. 21, 2024 6:11 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Feb. 21

Members of the Oregon House of Representatives work on the first day of the legislative session at the Oregon state Capitol, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Salem, Ore.

Members of the Oregon House of Representatives work on the first day of the legislative session at the Oregon state Capitol, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Salem, Ore.

Jenny Kane / AP

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Oregon’s short legislative session is more than halfway over, and Monday marked the first major deadline that legislation needs to clear in order to have a chance to pass this year. A bill that would have bolstered the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in coming years isn’t moving forward, along with a bill that would have blocked teachers from striking. Legislators are still working on tweaks to Measure 110 and campaign contribution limits. OPB political reporter Dirk VanderHart updates us on the ongoing work in Salem.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Oregon’s short 2024 legislative session is already halfway done. That means that some bills, like those aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions or preventing teachers from striking, are likely dead. But others are still very much alive. That list includes high profile issues like housing, the effort to recriminalize hard drugs, and even campaign finance reform. Dirk VanderHart is one of OPB’s political reporters. He joins us now. Welcome back.

Dirk VanderHart: Hey, Dave. Good to be here.

Miller: I want to start with the efforts to overhaul Measure 110. It’s arguably the central issue of this session. Can you remind us what Democrats and Republicans came into the session with?

VanderHart: Both parties really showed up to Salem this year signaling they are ready to end the state’s three year experiment in decriminalizing drug possession. They seem to agree that a sterner approach is necessary as the state grapples with fentanyl, but they have not agreed on what that looks like. Democrats initial proposal was that possession of small amounts of drugs should be a Class C misdemeanor, which is the lowest class of crime in state law. It’s punishable by up to 30 days in jail. And what Democrats have said is that that would allow police to intervene in open drug use, it could prompt users to accept treatment rather than face charges or get a conviction.

But Republicans and other groups have really panned that idea. They want possession to be a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail. And the thinking on their part is that stricter potential penalties might better convince a drug user to get treatment. So that’s been their position.

Miller: Where do negotiations stand right now?

VanderHart: Well, I think that’s a big question in Salem actually. Because really for the last two weeks or so, the discussion has moved behind closed doors. Democrats are working clearly to rejigger their proposal. And what we’re hearing is they are likely to do that in a way that sort of meets Republicans halfway. Now, that could be in the form of not maybe a Class A or Class C, but an entirely new type of misdemeanor the legislature creates specifically to meet its aims around curbing addiction, convincing people to get treatment.

The specifics of what it looked like are unclear. We expect language to become public or at least start circulating pretty soon.

Miller: But just to be clear, it seems likely that lawmakers are going to recriminate drugs in the coming weeks. It’s just that some of the details are still being worked out?

VanderHart: That’s accurate as far as I know. But I have to say, the details on this are really important, and not just because it’s very weighty public policy. The actual politics of getting a bill through the Capitol are pretty tricky on this issue, because some Democrats are going to oppose strict recriminalization schemes, so their votes might not be there. And then some Republicans will oppose anything less than a Class A misdemeanor, at least that’s what they’re saying. So the question is whether there’s a line this bill can walk to get a majority in both chambers. And it’s a pretty interesting negotiation for that reason.

Miller: What have you heard from decriminalization proponents about what’s happening right now?

VanderHart: Well, I think it’s fair to say they are extremely discouraged. They came into this year thinking that perhaps lawmakers would create a crime for using drugs in public. I think they were very surprised to see how far Democrats were willing to go on this. And they’ve been pretty forceful. They’ve accused lawmakers of political theater in an election year. They say this bill is going to dredge up a racist system of drug enforcement that had particularly negative consequences for communities of color. And they also rightly point out that there’s just no indication the court system can handle an influx of drug possession cases at this point, which I have to say is something that lawmakers have not really addressed head on.

Miller: Meanwhile, we learned this week that Oregon saw, by far, the biggest increase in fatal overdoses in the country since 2019. How did lawmakers react to that news?

VanderHart: I think they reacted pretty predictably. They were sort of universally alarmed by this data obviously, but then used it to essentially bolster their current positions. For Democrats, that meant insisting that this shows the legislature must do something to curb fentanyl and drug use. For Republicans, it meant arguing that Democrats have utterly failed on this issue and urging more strict action than the Democrats have currently proposed.

Miller: One of Governor Kotek’s big priorities since the beginning of her term last year is housing. Can you describe the package that she put forward before the session?

VanderHart: Sure. This is a major funding and policy package that Kotek has put forward with the goal of supercharging housing production in the state. It’s actually the only bill that she’s introducing this session. It does a lot of things, but broadly, Kotek has proposed spending about $500 million to do things like help developers with housing costs, help cities build roads and water systems, for instance, to accommodate more housing. And she also wants to create a new agency to assist cities in speeding along building housing.

But the most closely watched piece of this bill is this one time change to state land use laws that would help cities override the normal process for bringing new land into their urban growth boundaries that can be built upon. This is an updated proposal from one that failed in 2023, but the governor has brought it back in a modified form. It is still spurring controversy from environmental groups who worry about hastening urban sprawl by rolling back these protections.

Miller: So, where does her overall package stand right now?

VanderHart: Well, it’s moving. The bill passed out of a Senate committee last week. But that was only after lawmakers took some chunks out of it. They have proposed less money than the $500 million that Kotek was hoping for. And they modified the bill a bit to include a less drastic change to land use laws than what the governor proposed. Basically, letting cities bring in less land than Kotek wanted.

The bill is currently sitting in the budget committee awaiting a hearing. We have no sign that it’s in trouble. But clearly, lawmakers wanted to put their stamp on it.

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Miller: One thing lawmakers are talking about right now is a campaign finance reform proposal. How much do we know about it?

VanderHart: Well, we know comparably very little, other than that it is pretty rushed. This is the product of labor and business groups, who are often actually diametrically opposed to one another on policies and political issues. Now, they have been sitting down and trying to hash out an agreement that they think might result in lawmakers passing a system of campaign finance limits, as you say, for the first time in decades, actually. Oregon is currently one of just five states without any limits on how much candidates can accept.

I think this would be pretty head-snapping in Salem. The legislature has taken up limits time and again over the years. It’s always something Democrats say is on their agenda, but they always fail to find any sort of agreement. And so doing this in a five week session would be pretty interesting.

Miller: Were you expecting a bill about campaign finance from lawmakers?

VanderHart: No, absolutely not. And I don’t think a lot of people were. What has really forced the conversation and the thing that people in these talks think will actually make them successful maybe this time around, is that there is likely going to be a measure on the November ballot that includes some very strict campaign finance limits. If it makes the ballot, voters have suggested in the past, they are eager for those kinds of regulations. So rather than waiting to see if this proposal that they sort of hate becomes law in November, labor and business and Democrats and Republicans are all sort of scrambling to see if they can come up with a better option. And that is what we are waiting to see.

Miller: It seems like few things get lawmakers to act like the idea that citizens are going to make their own laws.

Monday was an important deadline for bills. Aside from some exceptions, they basically had to have moved out of their originating committees and onto the full house or senate floors to remain alive. I say largely because there’s always some way that a legislative leader can get the meat of a bill into some other bill or move things around. But still, it’s a pretty good date to look at to say this stuff is likely dead.

I want to turn to a couple of bills that you reported on recently that seem dead. One of them would increase state goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. What happened?

VanderHart: Well, according to its sponsor, it sort of got assassinated in the name of political harmony. This was a bill that, as you say, would have ratcheted up Oregon’s stated aims for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. Michael Dembrow, the senator who put forward, has been trying to pass this for a couple of sessions now. And he argues that it’s not that controversial. He says that there are not actually any teeth behind bolstering these goals, but that it’s important to set up a higher standard that the state can work toward.

Republicans apparently didn’t see it that way. According to Dembrow, this was placed on what he called a “bad bill list,” and deemed by the GOP as too politically toxic. That actually matters this session quite a bit since Democrats are being keen to avoid the threat of a GOP walkout. So Dembrow’s bill is dead.

Miller: I want to hear more about the possibility of walkouts in just a bit. But another bill that didn’t go anywhere would have added public school teachers to the list of employees who cannot strike in Oregon. What happened here?

VanderHart: There are bills in every session, from members of both parties, that are pretty clearly doomed from the outset. This was certainly one of those for the Republicans who introduced it. It’s a bill introduced sort of to make a statement about where members stand more than on the idea anyone thinks it will pass. And that’s basically what happened. The bill died without receiving a hearing. Democrats, who are pretty labor friendly in this state, say they are serious about making changes to address some of the underlying issues of the Portland strike, in particular funding questions. But that will wait until next year, and they certainly had no interest in talking about this strike bill.

Miller: Once again, there has been an effort to make it so Oregonians would not change their clocks twice a year. Is that still alive?

VanderHart: It is, sort of. So there’s a lot of history here. This is a bill that would keep Oregon on Standard Time year-round, the system we’re on now. That means sunrise earlier in the morning, sunset earlier in the evening. This is different, we should say, than the bill that lawmakers passed in 2019 that would have kept the state on Daylight Saving time year-round. That needed congressional approval, but Congress hasn’t acted. So now the idea is that we might stick with Standard Time instead, which doesn’t need an act of Congress. But Dave, there are many, many, many arguments for and against this idea. We probably don’t have time to go into it right now. There’s a lot of science that people throw around. One thing many opponents would point out that is probably notable to people listening is that sticking with Standard Time would result in the sun rising before 4:30 am in the summer, which is pretty dramatic.

The bill failed to clear the Senate yesterday because lawmakers were worried that Oregon would be making this change without California or Washington or Idaho. And that could get pretty confusing. But it seems we’re going to see a modified version of the proposal later this session that would tie any time change in Oregon to those other states acting. So stay tuned.

Miller: So let’s turn to the question of walkouts. As folks may remember, right before the session started, the Oregon Supreme Court had a ruling that basically added clarity to this, saying that nine Republicans and an Independent, conservative lawmakers, cannot run for re-election either this November or in 2026. That led Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, who’s one of those lawmakers to basically say, “Democrats, make this session worth our while, or we’re going to walk again. We have nothing to lose.” I’m paraphrasing, but barely paraphrasing. Has the threat of a walkout hovered over the proceedings?

VanderHart: I think it has and it hasn’t. We have not seen anyone threatening to walk out or acting like that was imminent. And in fact, Republicans haven’t even used any of the now normal delay tactics that they like to employ when the two parties aren’t getting along very well, things like requiring that bills be read in full before a vote, which can take up a lot of time. But as I mentioned earlier, part of that might be because Democrats have really self-censored in a way this session. They have five weeks to get things done. They know they wanna tackle addiction, they know they wanna tackle housing, and they know they don’t want a walkout to blow it up. So the party seems to be trying to avoid the really controversial issues, things like gun control or abortion or some climate change stuff that have led to walkouts in the past.

Miller: One of the bills we talked about recently on this show would prevent school districts from banning books simply because they feature people who are members of already protected groups in Oregon. It seems like the kind of hot button cultural issue bill that has prompted conservative lawmakers to walk out in recent years. Where does that bill stand?

VanderHart: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. That bill was supposed to get a vote in the Senate today. But it got moved back to committee. Sometimes that means a bill is dead. But what I’m told is in this case, it means Republicans who opposed the bill wanted to create what’s called a minority report, essentially their own version of the bill that could be swapped out on the floor if enough lawmakers agree. So the bill’s been moved back, they’re going to do some paperwork, get it ready to go, and it will be voted on another day. We expect it will move through the Senate. I’m not sure about the House.

Miller: What else has gotten your attention so far?

VanderHart: A couple of things. I’m gonna be closely watching how lawmakers decide to spend all the money they have. There’s a good amount of money available this session, something like $1.3 billion. Obviously a lot of needs. And so we will be watching, because it can be very difficult to track where all that money goes in the frenzy of late session.

There’s also an open question about how the House changes out its leadership that I think could get pretty interesting toward the end of session. Speaker Dan Rayfield has said he’s going to step down near the end of session, which would theoretically pave the way for the House to name Representative Julie Fahey as speaker before adjournment. Republicans say they don’t love that idea. It’s possible they can move to block it. There could just be some drama around this that really has to do with the 2024 elections and who’s leading Democrats into those. So stay tuned for that as well.

Miller: Dirk VanderHart, thanks very much.

VanderHart: Yeah, my pleasure.

Miller: Dirk VanderHart is a member of OPB’s political reporting team.

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