Oregon lawmakers wrapped up a five-month session marked by determined and at times contentious efforts to address long-standing inequities in the state and by staggering amounts of spending on infrastructure, the state’s wildfire response, support for vulnerable Oregonians and a host of other projects.
The high-spending session, which ended Saturday evening, was made possible by an unexpectedly robust rebound in Oregon’s economy and an infusion of billions of dollars in federal recovery funds. Sweeping police accountability reforms, which some white lawmakers previously did not view as urgent, passed thanks to lawmakers’ heightened awareness of racial inequities and desire to address them.
“We actually began to really, truly address some of the issues … that we’ve been trying to deal with for decades in this state,” said Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Portland. “We’ve now taken a huge step forward in really making a difference in a sense of safety for everyone in this state.”
Frederick credited Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Happy Valley Democrat who is the only Black woman in the Legislature, and Rep. Ron Noble, the Republican former McMinnville police chief, who led the shaping of reforms that passed this year. He and other racial justice advocates said those bills were just the start.
As a result of legislative decisions, spending will happen on an astounding scale, particularly for infrastructure. If it goes as lawmakers intend, it will serve as a mammoth job creation initiative on a scale Oregon likely hasn’t seen since the Civilian Conservation Corps went to work during the 1930s’ New Deal.
But legislative leaders, particularly Senate President Peter Courtney, are worried that state agencies and other public entities may be swamped by the demands of trying to spend so much money, delaying relief and improvement to communities badly in need.
“We’ve got to deliver,” Courtney said Saturday night. “So I’m sweatin’ it.”
On the racial justice front, advocates and lawmakers including House Speaker Tina Kotek were disappointed earlier this month when a proposal to limit police traffic encounters, such as stopping drivers with broken tail lights, died in committee. Kotek said it will be a top priority when lawmakers return in 2022.
Lawmakers passed plans to address other systemic inequalities, too: a ban on suspensions and expulsions of daycare and preschool students, an expansion of the state’s earned income tax credit to workers without Social Security numbers and authorization for the Public Utility Commission to create lower energy rates for low-income households, to name just a few.
But leaders in the Black, Indigenous and people of color communities expressed dismay that other racial justice proposals, including the proposal to limit police traffic encounters and a bill to extend overtime rights to farmworkers, were scuttled amid a lack of urgency, particularly in the Senate.
“This was the time to enact policies that improve the lives of all Oregonians, not just a select few,” said Marcus Mundy, executive director of the Coalition of Communities of Color. “This was our shot to create some true equity, and it’s a shame that legislative leaders didn’t take it.”
Advocates of limits on money in politics were also disappointed this session, after lawmakers failed to pass campaign contribution limits despite voters’ overwhelming approval of a constitutional amendment to allow it in November. The Legislature also took a pass on creating a statewide public financing program.
“There was a clear mandate from voters to repair our broken campaign finance system,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, in an email. “Legislative leadership wasn’t willing to break with big money backers.” She suggested proponents would soon bring forward a ballot initiative to set limits on political donations.
All told, the House approved 18 bills and the Senate 46 on the final day of what turned out to be a 159-day session — one day short of the maximum allowed length for odd-numbered years, as prescribed under the Oregon Constitution.
During that time, they ousted two of their members for serious misconduct, including a 59-1 vote to expel a sitting member of the Legislature for the first time in history.
The session’s closing hours featured breezy approvals of agency budgets, a bill to extend health insurance coverage to low-income Oregonians regardless of immigration status, a measure that would regulate kratom, and a bill to require public schools to provide free feminine hygiene products to students.
The Senate gave final passage to the final eight bills in a package of two dozen designed to improve law enforcement officers’ training, regulate officers’ conduct and increase their accountability for misconduct. The eight included bills to limit use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Most passed easily with bipartisan support. But a bill to require state licensing of private security guards and a linchpin bill to create a statewide commission to set conduct and discipline standards for law enforcement officers and disallow police unions from negotiating a local discipline matrix as part of the union contract both passed more narrowly.
In the House, the only bill that sparked any significant debate Saturday was a measure that would direct utilities to develop wildfire mitigation plans, bolster state firefighting capacity and require some property owners to establish buffers around homes and other buildings. The bill will also make a down payment on the vast backlog of forest restoration work that many fire, forestry and environmental officials believe will be critical to restoring forest health and reducing wildfire severity.
Oregon’s approximately $29 billion budget for the next two years — including $2 billion from the latest federal stimulus — also directs assistance to the neediest Oregonians and those hard-hit by the pandemic and 2020 wildfires. The speaker’s office tallied the total housing expenditures at $750 million, including $410 million to develop roughly 3,000 units of new affordable housing.
There is also $600 million in the budget to help communities devastated by September 2020 wildfires and prepare for future fires, and more than $470 million to boost mental health and substance abuse treatment services, according to Kotek’s and Courtney’s offices. Budget writers appropriated $275.7 million of federal money for four dozen drinking water and wastewater projects around the state and $240 million for projects and services selected by each of the 90 lawmakers.
Unlike in previous years, lawmakers were able to focus on crafting big-ticket spending without the grueling political negotiation necessary to raise taxes.
But they both trimmed and declined to trim taxes nonetheless, with low- and moderate-income households bearing the brunt of those decisions. Lawmakers netted roughly $300 million in taxpayer funding by going home without passing a refund for the Oregonians of modest means who paid more state income taxes as a result of receiving federal stimulus payments. Meanwhile, businesses and wealthy Oregonians scored several wins: a $450 million to $600 million state tax cut for businesses that received federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans, $103 million-worth of state tax cuts copied from the federal CARES Act and an expensive new state workaround to help certain large businesses cut their federal tax bills. Lawmakers did trim a controversial 2013 tax break for pass-through businesses to make it off-limits for companies with more than $5 million in annual profits, meaning those big businesses will pay $41.7 million more in total in the coming budget cycle.
Ironically, the torrent of money available did not make state budget writers’ work easier. To the contrary, the Ways and Means Committee was inundated with funding requests from lawmakers, interest groups and other advocates. In the end, top lawmakers on that budget committee socked away approximately $1 billion of state general fund and federal aid money for future spending, said interim legislative fiscal officer Laurie Byerly, who lawmakers hailed for her hard work managing the flood of cash. Heads of the budget committee also attempted to limit big-ticket spending to one-time investments, such as catching up on deferred maintenance of state parks.
Among the people disappointed to receive less than they’d asked for were school district officials, teachers unions, Republican lawmakers and Democrats who wanted to boost the state school fund to $9.6 billion. Instead, Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic leaders determined that hiking the budget to $9.3 billion was plenty.
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby said the state school fund budget was a major disappointment. “One of our No. 1 obligations as a state is to fund schools,” Drazan said in an interview Friday. “I really trust my local school board and I think they need to have flexibility to address learning loss, graduation rates, etcetera.”
Drazan also made a case during the session that schools should receive more money to help return fully to in-person classes, on top of the $1.1 billion they received directly in the latest round of federal aid. Senate Republicans made the governor’s reluctance to mandate a statewide return to in-person instruction an issue early in the session, when they staged their only boycott this year. Eight days later, Brown ordered schools to shift to in-person classes by spring break.
Aside from taking a brief stand for increased educational investments for students of color, Brown kept a low profile in the final long session of her governorship. She appeared to leave decisions about how to prioritize the historic — and potentially legacy shaping — spending of public funds to top lawmakers and focused her time, public appearances and media availabilities on addressing the state’s COVID crisis. Brown, whose long-time chief of staff departed last year for a job with the Biden administration, did not push for a bill to give Oregon voters more time to vote, even though she leads a federal political action committee in support of vote-by-mail. Brown declined to be interviewed about Oregon’s legislative session. Her deputy communications director noted that lawmakers passed the governor’s bill to help reduce suspensions and expulsions in early childhood programs and achieve other priorities of her Racial Justice Council.
It was unclear at the start of the session if the Legislature’s work might get derailed by the actions of a couple of lawmakers. Before the 2021 session began, a surveillance video showed then-Rep. Mike Nearman, a Republican from west of Salem, opening a door of the closed Capitol to violent demonstrators during a one-day special session in December. Lawmakers soon took up the question of how to respond to findings that then-Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, harassed women with business at the Capitol. Hernandez resigned before a possible vote to expel him while Nearman remained until all of his colleagues voted to expel him earlier this month.
Still, compared with the previous two sessions when Republicans repeatedly fled the Capitol to kill climate change bills, 2021 was relatively calm and interruption-free.
The fact that this session was primarily about sending relief money to every nook and cranny of Oregon, rather than passing a slate of progressive policy bills including cap-and-trade, helps explain why Republicans weren’t as keen to hold up progress by walking out and hiding far from Salem.
Nearman speculated that Republicans were generally trying to stay on the good side of Democratic leaders — including by voting to expel him — in order to receive millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds for projects in their districts.
“We have lots of federal money sloshing around, and everybody’s trying to not do anything that would upset the speaker of the House, because they want to make sure that they get that freeway in their district, or get the senior center repainted in Gooberville, or something like that,” he told KWRO.
Some Republicans indicated this year that they cannot simply leave every time a bill they disagree with comes up for a vote – something many Republican constituents, accustomed to walkouts, had a hard time accepting. For example, Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons came under criticism by gun rights activists and now face recall efforts for not shutting down the Senate to prevent a vote on a bill to require safe storage of guns and allow governments to ban firearms in public buildings.
It probably also helped that lawmakers steered clear of some issues with a history of upsetting Republicans and their constituents, such as closing a loophole in the state’s vaccine mandate for schoolchildren even as the safety of children returning to in-person schooling during the pandemic remains a top concern for many parents.
Through it all, the Capitol remained closed to the public due to the pandemic, a decision by top Democrats that irked Republicans and some Democrats.
Now lawmakers will get a brief break before they resume work on the endeavor that normally would have consumed much of their time this session: redrawing their own electoral boundaries and those of the state’s congressional seats, including a new sixth district to be added for 2022 based on the state’s population growth. Redistricting work will
ramp up to full speed in mid-August when crucial 2020 Census data arrives.
As lawmakers endured the typical wait for the paperwork needed in order to complete the final day’s business, Kotek thanked representatives for their work during what a session unlike any in Oregon’s 162-year history.
“We’re here because we’re motivated by the people we serve,” she said, noting that lawmakers — like many Oregonians — have endured wildfires, ice storms, and pandemic-related shutdowns over the past year.
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