4 min read

Oregon Legislature Hits The Ground Running

With the long and perhaps growing list of topics for the session, it will take quite the endeavor for the legislature to accomplish all its priorities in such a short window of time.

The Takeaway

Lawmakers hit the ground running during the first week of their session, with only five weeks to complete their work for the year and no shortage of ideas. Typically, the legislature reserves its major policy initiatives for the long, five-month session occurring in odd-numbered years. This year, however, the legislature has set its sights on several major proposals, including efforts to revisit the state’s drug decriminalization law, boost housing production, and many other hot topics.

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!

Revisiting Drug Decriminalization

The highest profile issue of the session is an ongoing effort to reform the state’s drug decriminalization law, Measure 110, approved by voters in 2020. Although drug addiction and overdoses are plaguing the entire country, Oregon’s decriminalization is often attributed to proliferating the state’s drug crisis. In particular, there is bipartisan interest among lawmakers to return criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of illicit drugs. However, there is robust disagreement about the harshness of those offenses. The leading proposal, introduced by a Democrat-led committee, suggests making possession a Class-C misdemeanor, while a counterproposal offered by Republicans would make possession a Class-A misdemeanor. In addition to reviving criminal penalties, lawmakers are actively exploring ways to infuse the state’s beleaguered network of drug treatment providers with the capital and expertise needed to support drug users in recovery.

Housing & Homelessness

During the 2023 session, Gov. Tina Kotek (D) set a statewide goal of increasing housing production by 36,000 units annually and worked with the legislature to craft new housing policies to increase production. Towards the end of the session, an effort to open local urban growth boundaries for development—an idea that received strong opposition from environmental and conservation groups—fell by the wayside in the eleventh hour. Now, the governor is returning to the legislature, asking for $500 million to increase housing production to meet the state’s goal. Included in her proposal, the only measure the governor drafted for the session, is a similar proposal allowing local governments to expand their growth boundaries up to 150 acres for affordable housing. Oregon’s land-use system has a history of being equally beloved and chided, and very few exceptions have found success over the years. It serves as a true test of the political might of the governor, housing advocates, and environmental interests.

Other Topics

The list of topics poised to come up over the remaining four weeks of the session seems almost endless. The legislature is actively considering proposals to create new climate regulations, require device manufacturers to provide documents and tools to fix broken products, and settle a decades-long dispute over specialty crop growing in the state’s fertile Willamette Valley. And these are only the issues to come up during the first week of the session. Behind the scenes, a group of business and public employee union leaders have been working with legislative leadership on a proposal to enact campaign finance limits. The groups, often warring with each other over a litany of issues, seem to have found a common adversary in a ballot initiative collecting signatures that would impose strict donation limits, hurting the ability of each side to curry relationships with lawmakers and influence policy outcomes. If the business and labor groups successfully find common ground and support from political leadership, it would be a significant surprise for the legislature, especially during its short session.

State Economists Anticipate $559 Million in New Revenues

On Wednesday, a panel of the state’s tax-writing committees received the latest economic and revenue forecast from the Office of Economic Analysis. The economists told lawmakers the economy is no longer showing the recessionary risks present a year ago and it appears the Federal Reserve achieved its soft landing of increasing interest rates without pushing the economy over a cliff. With no or little risk of a recession, the economists characterized the state’s revenue outlook as “stable,” adding $559 million in anticipated revenues for the legislature to spend this session and $1.2 billion more since lawmakers crafted the biennial budget last summer. The news about the revenue outlook comes at a fortunate time for legislators, who certainly have no shortage of ideas on ways to spend it.

Click here to read the full revenue forecast report.

Session Deadlines Loom

The abbreviated deadlines of the short session mean legislative committees must act quickly on their policy proposals to keep them in contention. On Monday, February 12, only six workdays into the session, the legislature will face its first official deadline. If a bill is not scheduled for a work session (vote) in its first policy committee, it will effectively die by the close of business. Then, the bill must pass out of the committee by the following Monday. With the long, and perhaps growing, list of topics for the session, it will take quite the endeavor for the legislature to accomplish all its priorities in such a short window of time.

What We're Reading This Week

  • Last Thursday, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the Secretary of State’s determination that senators absent for 10 or more days last session are disqualified from seeking re-election under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2022. The ruling sets a high stake for bipartisan cooperation to avoid the session from falling apart.
  • On Wednesday, the legislative committee charged with revisiting Measure 110 held a long evening hearing to receive public testimony on potential changes, with emotions from both sides on full display.
  • On Thursday, Gov. Kotek appeared before the Senate Housing & Development Committee to pitch her ideas to address the state’s backlog of available and affordable housing.
  • Business and labor interests are working behind the scenes to see if the legislature can reach a consensus during the short session to reform the campaign finance system before advocacy groups qualify an initiative imposing strict donation limits.
  • In a guest opinion to The Oregonian, a board member for Portland Public Schools suggests the legislature should visit new funding mechanisms to increase funding for public schools, including a sales tax. (A sales tax has been rejected by Oregonians ten times on the ballot.)
  • In a new poll commissioned by the Portland Metropolitan Chamber, nearly 70 percent of respondents said Portland area taxes were too high for the level of services they received in return. Only 21 percent said the current levels of taxation were appropriate.
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