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Legislature Previews Its Short Session Sprint

Lawmakers convened in Salem this week to preview the issues likely to dominate the session, including drug decriminalization, housing, and wildfire funding.

The Takeaway

While it may seem like the last session adjourned a short order ago, the Oregon Legislature is already gearing up for its next session, with no shortage of topics and controversies. Lawmakers convened in Salem this week to preview the issues likely to dominate the session, including efforts to change the state’s drug decriminalization law, increase access to housing and homeless services, and prepare the state for its next bout with summer wildfires. Starting on Monday, February 5, the legislature will meet for 35 calendar days to work through these topics and many more.

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!

Dueling Proposals to Reform Measure 110

Since voters approved Measure 110 (2020), which decriminalized most drugs and rerouted marijuana tax revenues to drug treatment centers, lawmakers and advocates have sought to reinstitute penalties and mandatory treatment for drug users. While these proposals were set aside during the last session, the state’s addiction and overdose crisis is driving the political need for the legislature to step in and, potentially, reform the decriminalization effort.

Over the last several months, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has been crafting legislation to scale back the drug decriminalization law, seeking ways to promote treatment for abusers and reinstate some fashion of a carrot-and-stick incentive, such as criminal penalties or mandatory treatment. Sometime next week, the co-chairs of the Addiction & Community Safety Response Committee are expected to release a proposal to reinstate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs. The co-chairs are also exploring a concept where drug users could opt for a diversion-like treatment program, where they go to a treatment facility instead of jail.

However, on Thursday, House Republicans unveiled their own recriminalization proposal, imposing stricter criminal penalties and mandatory treatment for small amounts of drugs. Additionally, the measure changes the funding model for drug treatment, shifts oversight from the Oregon Health Authority to a new body, called the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, and directs funds to local governments for enforcement and harm reduction services.

Unlike many political issues, Oregon’s decriminalization is not coming up only among those in the trenches. It’s a frequent topic in most communities facing the prevalence and public use of drug abuse. It’s also becoming clear that political leaders are recognizing the importance to voters and seem motivated to find a new path forward. If any issue is to take “center stage” for the session, the odds favor drug policy reform.

Housing & Homelessness

In November, Gov. Tina Kotek (D) announced a request for $600 million in additional funding from the legislature to expand housing production and promote services to combat homelessness. In her first weeks as governor, she set an ambitious goal of building 36,000 units and issued executive orders to jumpstart that effort. The legislature also passed several housing measures seeking to increase land supply for low- and middle-income housing. Now, the governor wants the legislature to double down on those commitments with proposals to spend $500 million in new housing developments, $65 million for rental assistance, and $33 million to add and sustain shelter capacity. The funds eat away at a large portion of the available revenues for the state to spend in its budget rebalance, but there is a growing consensus among political leaders that housing is a top priority heading into the session.

Wildfire Relief & Funding

The legislature has spent significant time over the last several sessions responding to the annual wildfire seasons, which have become more volatile in recent years. In 2021 and 2023, lawmakers reformed the state’s infrastructure to prepare and respond to wildfires threatening large swaths of the state. One category some lawmakers now want to tackle is a sustained source of new funding for those efforts, which can otherwise quickly drain allotted budgets during stronger fire seasons.

During hearings this week, lawmakers began rolling out a series of funding measures seeking to jumpstart the conversation over funding wildfire response. These proposals include a new statewide property tax and fees on property owners. Tax measures during any session are politically fraught, especially with the state constitutional requirement for new taxes and most tax increases to receive a three-fifths supermajority to become law. During short sessions, which coincide with the election cycle, those votes become even more difficult to maneuver as legislators focus on their reelection prospects.

Speaker Battle Looms

In December, House Speaker Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis), the leading Democratic candidate to be Oregon’s next attorney general, suggested he may step down as presiding officer at the end of the session. The announcement set off a shotgun start among Democrats jockeying to replace him. The two prominent candidates, House Democratic Leader Julie Fahey (D-Eugene) and Ways & Means Co-Chair Tawna Sanchez (D-Portland), are said to be the frontrunners within the caucus. If Speaker Rayfield indeed steps down at the end of the session, the jockeying could spill into the session’s politics as the legislature makes key policy and funding decisions. It goes without saying, the next several weeks are primed to be busy.

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