Oregon lawmakers returned to Salem on Tuesday to begin their work for the 2022 session. The session marks the sixth time the legislature has convened for a five-week “short” session and the second meeting conducted mostly in the virtual environment. These short sessions represent a delicate dance between the political scrimmages of the election season and the time constraints intended to maintain a narrow focus on the most urgent priorities. The clock is already ticking with a growing list of bills and issues to address.
The session begins with new leadership and a host of new members, which is an unusual development in the middle of the legislative cycle. On Tuesday, the Oregon House of Representatives elected Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis), a personal injury and civil rights attorney, to serve as the Speaker of the House. House Democrats as well as House and Senate Republicans appointed new caucus leaders heading into the session and campaign cycle, adding a fresh perspective and energy to an already contested election season. Since the last session, the legislature also welcomed nine new members to its ranks after an unusually high number of mid-cycle departures and appointments.
Although the legislature imposes strict bill introduction and scheduling limits on the short session, there is certainly no shortage of new ideas and initiatives. Gov. Kate Brown (D) is proposing a $700 million spending initiative to support job training, housing, and childcare, called Future Ready Oregon. The job training initiative, which consists of roughly $200 million in workforce investments in the construction, health care, and manufacturing sectors, is already catching the attention of other industries wanting a piece of the pie.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of this year’s short session is the state’s unprecedented fiscal position. It is customary in recent years for the legislature to walk into the short session with a comfortable fiscal cushion, providing lawmakers on the budget-writing committee some flexibility to balance the budget and fund new initiatives using surplus funds. However, this year, the cushion is leaps and bounds above the norm. As of the last revenue forecast in November, the state has about $1.5 billion in tax revenues above the amount expected at the end of the 2021 session. Those unanticipated revenues, combined with a substantial rollover balance of the state’s allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act, could drive another year of record spending.
Although Oregon’s fiscal position is solid, lawmakers will still contemplate a novel tax initiative to finance monthly payments for low-income residents and young adults leaving the foster care system. The proposal seeks to impose a three percent sales tax on luxury goods to fund payments of $750 per month for three years to these individuals. Cash payments to individuals, much like the three “stimulus” payments from the federal government earlier in the pandemic, have become a popular mechanism for politicians and advocacy groups to address economic inequality. This proposal combines fiscal populism with an unusual, dedicated tax mechanism Oregonians have unrelentingly opposed. The combination will surely catch the ire of some in the coming weeks.
It is important to remember there is no ramp-up time or breaks during the short session—it is already a sprint to adjournment. On Monday, the legislature will reach its first major milestone of the session—the chamber of origin scheduling deadline—requiring policy committees to schedule measures for a work session to keep them in contention. The fast pace of the deadline means lawmakers and advocates are racing against the clock to flush out language and policy disputes to keep precious proposals alive.
The session may have only just started, but we are already in the thick of it.