Oregon senators gather on Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in the state Capitol for the first day of the legislative session. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
The Oregon Legislature started its work Monday with a personal tale, a new state representative and a long list of bills to try to pass before lawmakers return home for the year in mid-March.
Tweaks to the state’s drug decriminalization law and an influx of new spending and policy changes to spur home building and ease the state’s housing crisis are the top concerns, but lawmakers will also consider bills on voting rights, finances, climate change and school funding over the next 35 days.
Homelessness and drug addiction will dominate the session amid a surge in lethal fentanyl overdoses. Lawmakers are pressing to expand treatment and access, increase residential facilities and look for ways to prevent addiction and overdoses. Gov. Tina Kotek is requesting $500 million for housing programs and another $100 million to prevent homelessness and fund shelters.
“We know that Oregonians in every corner of the state are dealing with urgent challenges,” Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, said in a press conference.
An ongoing nearly $600 million construction project continues to affect the Capitol, keeping all but the House and Senate chambers, one hallway with hearing rooms and legislative offices closed. Construction equipment started droning outside the House as soon as Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, called for a moment of silence, and lobbyists, staff and Capitol visitors camped outside committee rooms on benches with their backs to windows overlooking the open pit that used to house basement offices.
The House welcomed its newest member, state Rep. Dwayne Yunker, R-Grants Pass. Yunker’s derogatory comments about LGBTQ+ people, reported by the Capital Chronicle, sparked condemnation from a member of the LGBTQ+ caucus and a promise from Rayfield and House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, that the Capitol would welcome all Oregonians.
Touched by addiction
Rayfield laid out the importance of addressing addiction in his opening speech, describing a framed leaflet for a rally to impeach then-President Richard Nixon. Once his mother took drugs off of it but now it hangs on a wall. It reminds him of New Year’s Eve in 1983, when his mother went to her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She quit her job and started cleaning houses and offices while she focused on recovery, taking her elementary-aged son with her to cleaning gigs and to protests where he had his first experiences with politics.
Rayfield said his mother’s decision to start treatment was a gift unmatched by any other. He credits her recovery with all the opportunities he’s had, including presiding over the House of Representatives for the past three years.
“Right now, for too many, that opportunity, that hope is buried, obscured by pain, poverty and addiction,” he said. “Our most important job, our obligation this session, is to turn the corner.”
He urged lawmakers who will spend the session debating the fine points of addiction law to remember the humanity of people struggling with addiction.
“Behind every face of addiction, behind every person experiencing homelessness, there is a friend,” he said. “There is a mother. There is a father. There is a son. There is a daughter.”
Bills on voting, AI
Democratic senators on Monday outlined some of their key proposals and they cover a range of issues from children’s health care to worker pay and artificial intelligence.
For example, Sen. Aaron Woods, D-Wilsonville, said he has a proposal that would require campaigns to disclose when they are using artificial intelligence in campaign ads. Artificial intelligence has advanced rapidly and video footage and audio can look realistic when it is fake.
“We need to preserve the authenticity of our democratic process for Oregonians,” Woods said.
Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, said he’s working on a bill that would automatically register in-state students to vote when they apply for college. A similar process already exists when people apply for an Oregon driver’s license or state identification card, and lawmakers expanded automatic voter registration to Medicaid recipients last year. But an estimated 5,000 college and university students without a license or identification card would become registered voters when they apply to school, Manning said.
Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, said she has a bill that would allow children struggling with severe mental health needs to access respite care at home that they are entitled to under Medicaid programs. Gelser Blouin, chair of the Senate Committee on Human Services, said the bill would leverage federal funding and help the state avoid expenses down the road, such as when foster children with unmet needs are housed in hotels.
Housing children in temporary lodging costs more than $1 million a year in state funding per child, she said.
“I have always believed that children are intended to be seen and heard in every place,” Gelser Blouin said.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said he has a bill that would hold a construction general contractor liable when a subcontractor they hire doesn’t pay workers. The bill would also allow a contractor to take legal action against a subcontractor who doesn’t pay wages.
“It’s very important to make certain that individuals get their fair wage,” Prozanski said.
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland and co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, struck a cautious tone as she discussed the state’s finances. Lawmakers will have a clearer picture of how much they’ll be able to spend – or whether they have to make any cuts – after Wednesday’s quarterly revenue forecast.
Lawmakers and Gov. Tina Kotek already have a lengthy wish list for new spending. And Steiner said they’re counting on a bare minimum of $78 million for the state’s employment related day care program, which had to institute a waitlist months ago.
“So the long and short of it is, we have money,” Steiner said. “We don’t have as much as people think there is, and we’ll know a lot more after Wednesday.”
Senate gets to work
In the Senate, all 30 senators showed up for the roll call vote in the first session since last year, when a GOP-led walkout brought work to a halt.
One of their first bipartisan actions of the session: They unanimously confirmed Obadiah “Obie” Rutledge as secretary of the Senate unanimously.
Last week, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that 10 Republican senators who participated in the walkout are ineligible to run for reelection because voters passed Measure 113, which bars lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences from running for a subsequent term.
For the Senate to meet its two-thirds quorum requirement, at least three Republican senators need to show up for business.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has said the ruling means Republican members have no reason to show up if they disagree with a bill since they’ve already been punished, warning Democrats to take their views into account. Lieber said Democrats work with Republicans every day and that her real hope is that the court’s ruling provides clarity about the intent of voters for lawmakers to stay and work for their constituents.
“There’s no promise to leave and there’s no promise to stay,” she said.
Opening day also included moments of respect – and symbolism.
On the Senate floor, Knopp introduced former legislator and Senate President Eugene “Gene” Derfler, who was the Senate president in 2001. A World War II Navy veteran, Derfler, 99, also was a state representative or senator from 1988 to 2001.
And in the House, Rayfield gave every representative a stone, gathered from the banks of the Willamette River in Corvallis, that he said will symbolize the ripples they’ll make with the bills they pass this year. He glued a pair of googly eyes onto each rock to remind lawmakers that the people of Oregon are watching them.
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