Oregon lawmakers may have 87 days until they begin their next legislative session, but the planning and grunt work for the session is already underway. For three days this week, the legislature convened for its final round of interim committee hearings, defining many of the policy and political topics likely to drive next year’s session.
Among the many topics covered this week, the most prominent issue dominating discussions is the ongoing conversations to tackle public drug use and addiction. In 2020, Oregonians overwhelmingly supported a statewide ballot measure to decriminalize drugs and use marijuana tax revenues to connect users to treatment and recovery services. The measure, combined with the national proliferation of fentanyl and other street drugs, has become a familiar topic for many Oregonians, creating bipartisan interest in revisiting the law and staving off a potential ballot measure to recriminalize drug use.
While there seems to be alignment the legislature should do something to respond to public drug use and overdoses, finding consensus among lawmakers is likely to prove challenging. For several months, Republicans have openly discussed a swift response by repealing or reforming the measure in a special session. Considering the next session is just around the corner, it seems more likely for the legislature to wait until February and let the politics unravel with more time to reach a consensus.
Republican interest in addressing the pitfalls of that ballot measure and open drug use may also serve as a carrot for the session to occur in the first place. On December 14, the Oregon Supreme Court will hold a hearing on a petition from a group of Senate Republicans challenging a new constitutional prohibition on legislators seeking reelection with ten or more unexcused absences during a session. If the court finds the members are disqualified from seeking reelection, some question if the chamber will find the quorum it needs to conduct its business. Thus, reforming the drug decriminalization law may prove crucial to entice a quorum.
Legislative committees also gave us a preview of other issues likely to arise during their next session, including school and transportation funding. On Tuesday, the House Revenue Committee dug into the state’s school funding formula, which has permeated out of wonky tax debates into the public eye as the Portland Association of Teachers, the state’s largest teacher union, strikes for their second week. While the district and union claim the state should step in and adequately fund schools, lawmakers believe they did their job by giving districts a record $10.3 billion in the current budget. Additionally, due to the state’s equalization formula, any changes for one district will likely have corresponding negative consequences for other districts throughout the state.
On Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Transportation received a briefing from the Oregon Department of Transportation on its road maintenance and operation funding woes. State and federal governments have appropriated billions of dollars in recent years for major infrastructure projects; however, the primary funding mechanism for repairing potholes, plowing snow, and other maintenance work is the gas tax, which provides fewer resources over time due to electric and more fuel-efficient vehicles. The agency presented its funding constraints as a dire situation, with little choice but to cease its operations on critical roadways during the wintertime, including not plowing snow-covered roads leading to the ski resorts on Mount Hood. In the coming months, the legislature will consider proposals to raise and create new funding mechanisms, many of which will flame tempers in our politics, especially during an election year.
While the next session may feel far away, it quickly sneaks up on us. On Wednesday, November 15, the legislative revenue committees will convene again in Salem to receive the latest quarterly revenue forecast. The meeting will set the tone for budget deliberations leading up to the session and fundamentally shape how we talk about the state’s revenue outlook and available resources. For all intents and purposes, the “interim” is behind us and the next session is just around the corner.
- Portland Public Schools accuses its teachers union of unfair labor practices because of staged protests at the private employers of its board and staff.
- In 2020, Portland area governments convinced voters to infuse billions of dollars in new taxes to expand public services. Multnomah County is the latest to make headlines for underdelivering over its universal preschool initiative.
- Rep. Lily Morgan (R-Grants Pass) announced she will resign in December after accepting a new job as the city manager for the City of Gold Hill. Josephine County Republicans will nominate individuals to fill her seat in the coming weeks.
- Sen. Lynn Findley (R-Ontario) announced he will not seek reelection. Former House Republican Leader Mike McLane immediately announced his candidacy for the open seat, potentially setting up a contentious primary with former House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson.
- In addition to challenging the new constitutional prohibition against missing ten or more days during a session, a group of Senate Republicans is suing the Senate President and Secretary of the Senate in federal court, asserting the prohibition violates the senators’ rights to free speech and equal protection under the law.
- Oregon’s public employee unions and progressive advocacy groups filed amicus briefs supporting the new constitutional requirement barring lawmakers from seeking reelection after missing ten or more days during a session. It is not lost on us the prohibition from walking out comes at a time when the state’s largest teacher union is striking over disagreements.
- During a special election on Tuesday, Salem voters resoundingly rejected an employee payroll tax to supplement city funding for fire, police, and homeless services. Now, the city must find a way to balance its budget without the new infusion of money. Additionally, Salem area lawmakers are asking the state to chip in for local services since it does not pay property tax on state-owned land, an issue sure to generate controversy during the next session.