Oregon’s 2020 legislative session presents lawmakers with a serious time management challenge.
In just 35 days, the Legislature’s leading Democrats are hoping to cue up economy-wide greenhouse gas regulations and new gun controls. Some appear ready to declare that the state’s housing crisis has reached a state of emergency, and to steer hundreds of millions of dollars toward that and other pressing issues like mental health, foster care, wildfires.
In all, more than 250 pieces of legislation have been introduced for the five-week session. Only a fraction will make it across the finish line.
And that’s if things go smoothly.
The 2020 session will gavel in Monday under a pall of uncertainty and acrimony, more so than any session in recent memory.
Democrats — with supermajorities in both chambers and control of the governor’s office — say they’ll tackle the state’s most urgent issues. They insist they are honoring the purpose for which voters created legislative short sessions in 2010: addressing budget and policy matters that cannot wait, and completing unfinished business.
“If you really dig down and look at some of this, we’re in a remarkable position to do great things — and to do it together,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, in a typical plea for bipartisanship. “I’d like to see us try to emphasize that on day one.”
But Republicans accuse legislative leaders of going too far. They say they are willing to walk away from the Capitol if Democrats push a climate bill they can’t support — a last-ditch step GOP senators employed twice in last year’s session.
“It’s just ungodly how many bills and what type of bills are being proposed for a 35-day session,” said Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass. “To try to do this [climate change] policy in 35 days when it should be done over five or six months. It’s a crying shame.”
What will ultimately shake out as policy differences intermingle with election-year political considerations is anybody’s guess. But as the session gets underway, these are the central issues up for debate.
Since the 2019 session came to a chaotic end, another major climate change battle has been looming.
Forced to scrap their plans to fight global warming last year, Democrats have returned with a bill they say would allow Oregon to meet its emissions goals, while transitioning to a greener economy.
The bill would cap the state’s greenhouse gas emissions across three sectors: transportation, manufacturing and utilities. Companies regulated under the bill would need to obtain state-issued credits for every ton they emit. They could trade those credits amongst themselves. The emissions cap would lower over time.
While the overall framework of the new climate bill, Senate Bill 1530, is similar to last year's, the new legislation also contains tweaks that ease regulations on industrial manufacturers and rural areas of the state. Under the latest conception, for instance, most of the eastern 60% of the state would see no regulation on auto fuels.
The concessions have brought some skeptics on board, including Democratic Sen. Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay, a key holdout in 2019 whose support could give the bill enough votes to pass the Senate.
But Republicans are still adamant that the cap-and-trade system would be too costly for Oregonians, and are showing no signs they’ll be willing to stay in the building to vote “no” on the bill.
A few weeks before the 2020 legislative session was set to start, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, announced a bold proposal: She wants a statewide emergency declaration that would allow cities around the state to more easily site homeless shelters.
The idea is to ease zoning restrictions to allow shelters to be built in places they might otherwise be prohibited. Her proposal comes with a hefty price tag: $120 million for creating shelters and providing affordable housing.
The speaker’s proposal calls for establishing low-barrier shelters that offer services, known as “navigation centers,” in both Eugene and Salem.
Gov. Kate Brown is also pushing a resolution this session asking voters to amend the state constitution to allow real estate transfer taxes, which are assessed when property changes ownership. Brown would like to see money from the tax to go toward funding affordable housing.
Another major priority Democrats wound up scrapping last year was a variety of new gun controls, wrapped up in an “omnibus” bill lawmakers hoped to muscle through.
Legislative leaders angered groups like Moms Demand Action and Everytown for Gun Safety when they sacrificed that bill to pave the way for a new business tax. Now two of its provisions are back.
House Bill 4005, known as the "safe storage" bill, would require gun owners to secure their weapons with a trigger lock or some other mechanism while not in use or being transported. Gun owners who failed to do so could be cited for a civil violation, similar to a traffic ticket. But gun owners could also be held liable if their unsecured weapons were stolen and used to commit a crime.
Another bill, Senate Bill 1538, would allow local governments and school districts to ban concealed weapons on their premises. Currently, they have no such authority if a gun owner possesses a valid concealed handgun license.
Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick have said they are making passage of these bills a priority this session, prompting outcry from some gun owners. But not all Republicans think Democrats are sincere.
“It will be a negotiating tactic,” said Baertschiger, the Senate Republican leader. “We come to some kind of resolution on cap and trade, then the gun control stuff goes away. That’s part of politics, but I don’t like it.”
One of the pressing funding issues lawmakers might address is the Oregon State Hospital, which has recently been overloaded with patients accused of crimes, who require mental health treatment to be able to aid in their own defense.
In recent years, those patients have begun to crowd out the other types of patients the hospital accepts: criminal defendants deemed guilty except for insanity, and people whose acute mental illness requires them to be civilly committed. And the need for more bed space has at times put the hospital out of compliance with court-ordered deadlines for how soon it must admit patients accused of crimes.
To combat this, the Oregon Health Authority has requested nearly $30 million. That money would pay for existing employees hired to deal with the crush, as well as fund 84 new positions, open 50 additional beds, and lay the groundwork for three new residential treatment centers around the state.
Lawmakers will also take up Senate Bill 1575, which would adjust the criteria by which criminal defendants can be sent to the state hospital for treatment.
Voters could take a big step toward curbing the influence money plays in Oregon elections this year, when they’ll decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to allow contribution limits.
That vote is slated for November, but lawmakers have a choice to make in the next five weeks: Do they pass a bill to give citizens some certainty what campaign finance limits could look like, or do they punt that question until next year?
Right now, punting appears to be winning.
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has floated a bill, Senate Bill 1524, that would strictly limit how much individuals and political committees could donate to candidates and would prohibit direct donations from corporations and labor unions. But Golden's bill seems unlikely to pass this session. Legislative leaders and Gov. Kate Brown have signaled they will wait until voters have their say to vote on a campaign finance framework.
That doesn't mean campaign finance will be ignored. Lawmakers are expected to consider House Bill 4124, which could delay the implementation of contribution caps in the state.
The Oregon Supreme Court is currently considering a case that could lead justices to rule finance limits are legal under current law, reversing an earlier opinion that they are preempted by the state’s free speech protections. If that happened, strict campaign finance rules voters approved in 2006 would automatically kick in.
HB 4124 would pause that process. Instead, the 2006 limits would be delayed until July 2021 at the earliest, giving lawmakers time to overturn them next year and implement their own ideas.
“Oregon voters want campaign finance reform,” said Dan Meek, an elections watchdog who supports the 2006 limits. “The Legislature's focus appears to be to move away from that goal.”
The state has been warned: The “big one” is coming, and it’s expected to be one of the worst natural disasters in modern North American history.
Oregon is the only state on the West Coast that hasn’t funded an earthquake early warning system known as the ShakeAlert, Gov. Kate Brown said recently.
“We need to get this done,” the governor said. “Oregonians deserve it.”
Brown is asking for $12.7 million to focus on outreach and to ensure the ShakeAlert warning system is publicly available by 2021.
The governor said it’s also time to change the way the state fights fires. She is proposing putting $150 million to $200 million toward helping the state adapt to the way wildfires are fought. Her proposal adds jobs in the Office of Emergency Management, sets a goal of treating 300,000 acres of forestland through logging, controlled burns and restoration projects with the goal of reducing fires.
"The way we have been fighting fires no longer suits the type of fires we're seeing," the governor said recently.
The state’s Public Records Advisory Council will push legislation this session to ensure the state’s public records advocate and council are independent under state law.
The state's first-ever public records advocate resigned after roughly 18 months into the job after she alleged attorneys for Gov. Kate Brown attempted to unduly influence her work. Under Senate Bill 1506, authority over the public records advocate would be taken away from the governor's office, and instead invested with the PRAC itself.
This will be the first legislative session for the state’s new director of child welfare, Rebecca Jones Gaston. While leading the department of child welfare in Maryland, Gaston worked to reduce the number of children placed in foster care out of state. She will face a similar challenge in Oregon.
Between 2016 and 2018, the number of foster children Oregon leaders sent to residential treatment facilities in other states spiked. Many of the youth have shared stories of assault and neglect. The state is in the midst of trying to find a place for all the children back in Oregon.
Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, will push legislation that would require any out-of-state facility where Oregon places children in foster care to meet the same licensing standards as a facility within the state.
Even though this legislative session is a short 35 days, the Department of Human Services is requesting a major budget ask — $126.8 million. A significant chunk of that money, $14.3 million, would be put toward giving families services with the hopes of reducing the number of children the state places in foster care.