6 min read

Legislative Session Comes Down to the Wire

Lawmakers face a race to the finish line to complete their work before constitutional adjournment.

The Takeaway

Oregon’s short session is moving at a frantic pace as lawmakers race to clear bills out of one chamber and into another before the state constitution requires them to adjourn on Sunday, March 10. This week, the legislature spent much of its time navigating the long-discussed drug and housing bills and clearing a litany of other bills out of committees. We also learned of one new retirement this week, with perhaps more coming next week as we approach the primary filing deadline on Tuesday, March 12.

The Takeaway is a weekly session publication making sense of Oregon politics and policy. Every Friday while the legislature is in session, we publish a review of the week’s prominent topics and controversies. Subscribe to The Takeaway to receive these newsletters in your inbox!

House Broadly Endorses Drug Reforms

There is no issue this session claiming the spotlight more than the effort to revisit Oregon's fraught experiment with decriminalizing drug possession. Over the last several months, the parties discussed several options for expanding access to drug treatment and empowering law enforcement with more tools to curb public drug use. While they often disagreed over specific details, Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that inaction would represent a political and policy failure.

During the 1990s, Oregon voters approved several ballot measures changing criminal sentencing laws and the process by which the legislature can override voter-approved penalties. Among those initiatives was Measure 10 (1994), which requires a two-thirds supermajority vote if the legislature seeks to make any changes to criminal penalties approved by the voters. The supermajority requirement is one of several motivating factors for the legislature to address drug laws during the short session. If the legislature failed to reach a political compromise, backers of an initiative restoring strict penalties would likely go to voters, making any future work on drug crime sentencing more challenging.

After a long weekend of negotiating terms and whipping votes, political leadership emerged early in the week with a proposal quickly finding the committee's endorsement. The measure seems to include something for everyone to like and dislike. It offers drug users multiple opportunities to seek treatment to avoid jail but provides law enforcement with criminal penalties if treatment is refused or unsuccessful. While civil rights advocates asserted the measure goes too far in reviving the war on drugs, lawmakers understood the stakes if they failed to reach a compromise.

On Thursday, the House spent hours debating the drug reforms and an accompanying spending bill, emphasizing the need for the legislature's policy to reflect each community's unique needs and capabilities. While Republicans fiercely fought for strict criminal penalties, they broadly welcomed the treatment-first response with open arms. "History is going to record [the measure] as a delicate balance between justice with mercy—a delicate balance of mercy with justice," Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) said about the bill on the floor. That sentiment appeared almost universal, with only seven lawmakers voting against the measure. This afternoon, the Senate made the bills a special order of business and, as of this writing, appears set to send them to the governor's desk.

Senate Clears Governor Brown's Housing Bill

While the House was debating and voting on the drug and addiction measure, the Senate was busy advancing Gov. Tina Kotek's (D) housing package, which includes a variety of policy and funding proposals to bolster housing supply and expand homelessness services. During the 2023 session, the governor asked the legislature to create a one-time tool allowing local governments to open their urban growth boundary—the invisible line separating urban development from agricultural and natural lands—for housing development. In the final days of that session, however, the proposal faced immense opposition from environmental and conservation groups in the Senate, ultimately killing the bill in a dramatic vote.

The governor returned to the legislature, again asking the legislature to allow local governments to increase developable land for housing. Although the policy evolved throughout the session, as is custom for most measures, the bills swiftly moved through the chamber with bipartisan votes of 21-7.

Looking Ahead: Budgets, Taxes & Campaign Finance Reform

Despite tackling some of the session's more complicated and controversial issues this week, there remains a lot of work for lawmakers next week before the gavels fall and the session adjourns. Budget writers on the Ways & Means Committee will spend much of their week fine-tuning bills, rebalancing the state budget, and appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars toward new programs and construction projects.

The legislative tax-writing committees are also hurrying to complete their work on the session's revenue measures. Tax policy controversies are normally a hallmark of the legislative session; however, the topics this session have largely remained below the fold (whew!). Still, there are several outstanding and notable measures needing to move quickly. The Senate Finance & Revenue Committee finalized an omnibus package tweaking tax programs and administration. The House Revenue Committee also amended a placeholder measure to reaffirm taxpayer privacy protections for local taxes after a news organization sought tax records from the City of Portland, provoking litigation. And, finally, an annual measure updating state tax law references to federal law has been slow to move as tax writers wait to see if Congress passes a bipartisan tax agreement before the April 15 tax filing deadline.

A week might seem like an eternity during the short session, but it still takes time, sometimes multiple days, to move through the process. That leaves us with the last-minute effort in the House to rewrite the state's campaign finance laws. Currently, Oregon does not impose limits on political giving but has one of the most transparent reporting systems in the country. Good government advocacy groups are working to place an initiative before voters adopting strict limits on contributions, effectively stopping institutional groups, like unions and businesses, from participating directly in campaigns. At the urging of legislative leadership, the state's public employee unions and business community partnered to craft a counterproposal to avoid "dark money" and independent expenditures from taking over political campaigns. While there seems to be sufficient support in the legislature, time may be the biggest obstacle. The stars must align and stay aligned long enough to avoid any hiccups that could slow the bill from moving through both chambers before adjournment.

Retirement Announcements

In the last decade of the legislature convening in these short sessions, it has become a pastime for veteran legislators to announce their political intentions during the final days. As such was the case for Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Holvey (D-Eugene), announcing he would withdraw his bid for reelection after serving in the legislature for 20 years. Rep. Holvey joins Sens. Bill Hansell (R-Athena), Lynn Findley (R-Vale), Tim Knopp (R-Bend), Dennis Linthicum (R-Beaty), and Brian Boquist (I-Dallas) as well as Reps. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), Maxine Dexter (D-Portland), and Brian Stout (R-St. Helens) among the known retirements from the legislature, with perhaps several more to come out of the woodwork next week as the session winds down.

What We're Reading This Week

On This Page

Get these updates in your inbox.

Join our growing list of businesses, journalists, and political professionals receiving our newsletter.

No spam. Weekly during legislative sessions. Unsubscribe any time.