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Big policies take backseat as lawmakers work to address Oregon’s crises

Senators rise and say the Pledge of Allegiance during a special session called to address police reform and coronavirus concerns, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.
Senators rise and say the Pledge of Allegiance during a special session called to address police reform and coronavirus concerns, at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

In normal times, the first day of the legislative session would find the hallways of the Oregon state Capitol flooded with people — lobbyists, legislative assistants, the public, reporters.

But these are not normal times.

Instead of being a place of bustling energy, the halls of the state Capitol held silence on Tuesday, the first official day of the 2021 session. Lawmakers delayed gathering after heeding warnings from law enforcement that violent demonstrations could coincide with the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. The Oregon state Capitol’s first-floor windows were boarded up.

The last-minute delay of legislative action is a fitting beginning for a session lawmakers expect to be more focused on responding to urgent crises than pursuing sweeping policy agendas.

The state is still recovering from unprecedented wildfires that uprooted thousands from their homes; many of whom continue to live in hotels. Oregon has been in the midst of a racial reckoning, trying to grapple with its racist past and how to root out the systemic racism baked into the state’s institutions. And the number of people dying from COVID-19 continues to rise as the state works through an already bungled vaccine rollout.

“This session is about responding to crisis and helping people,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said last week. “We’re gonna continue on the path of making sure people have what they need.”

Gov. Kate Brown — who has been a fixture in the Capitol since 1991 — noted the five-month session will be “radically different” from any other session in modern history.

“The reality is, the challenging times we have faced in the last year have really created the legislative agenda,” Brown said

And House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, told reporters recently that the Legislature’s focus between the start of the session and July must be addressing “the challenges and the problems that Oregonians feel in real time.”

The result is a session less clearly defined than its recent predecessors. Unlike in years past, where the big legislative proposals — from statewide rent control to curbing carbon emissions — would have already been intensely negotiated before session even started, this year lawmakers have offered few detailed schematics for what they hope to achieve.

Still, the legislative work that begins Thursday promises to contain plenty of big ideas, even if its debates are largely limited to the virtual hearings lawmakers plan to hold until at least March.

Here’s a rundown of some of the issues you can expect lawmakers to consider this year.

Last fall, shortly after Labor Day, flames raged across Oregon at a pace not seen in the state’s modern history.

Entire neighborhoods were wiped out, people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands of acres were scorched.

Although it was unlike anything the state’s residents had experienced before, it was not totally unpredictable. Experts have been warning the state wasn’t doing enough to stave off such widespread destruction.

During the 2020 legislative session, Gov. Kate Brown unveiled a plan to make the state’s wildfire response plan more robust. The legislation died when the session abruptly ended after Republicans fled the Capitol to kill legislation aimed at curbing climate pollution.

Lawmakers are expected to once again rethink how the state fights and prevents wildfires. Many of the same issues discussed in 2020 are expected to resurface.

The governor’s 2020 proposal called for creating “defensible spaces” around homes to reduce the risk of wildfire damage. She suggested adding new jobs to help the state beef up its response to wildfire emergencies and provide better evacuation planning. One of the more controversial pieces of her plan was centered on how to treat forestland, such as through logging, controlled burning or ecosystem restoration projects.

This time around, the state’s budget will be significantly more strapped and any wildfire funding will have competition from myriad other priorities, such as helping those economically devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery, said with limited resources, there will likely be a shift of focus from fuel reduction to how to help communities adapt.

Golden said his committee will also be focused on how to help communities rebuild after the destructive fires. In Southern Oregon, the fires destroyed 18 mobile home and trailer parks, Golden said. Lawmakers carved out about $25 million to partner with Jackson County Housing Authority to rebuild some of the affordable housing in the area.

The ideal, the state Senator said, would be to help rebuild and give tenants a chance to own the property in a cooperative-type fashion.

“We have this slogan around this whole recovery effort,” Golden said. “Build back, better. This is one context in which we might actually do that.”

When Lew Frederick was first elected to the state Legislature, he was the only Black man serving in the statehouse.

At the time, Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, who died in 2019, was serving in the state Senate. She was the only Black woman.

“I used to joke when I walked over to the Senate to see her, the whole building tilted a little,” Frederick, now a state Senator, said.

This legislative session, nearly a decade after Frederick was first elected, a record number of people of color will be sworn in as new lawmakers.

Combined with returning members, the Legislature’s Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Caucus now has 12 members. Frederick believes the next few months in Salem present a historic opportunity to advance racial equity across the state.

“Never before has the conversation in this state been so focused on the legacies of racial inequality and the continuing impact of systemic racism of our society,” he said.

The BIPOC Caucus has unveiled a specific policy agenda that aims to address inequities in the state’s criminal justice system, add more accountability to policing, offer assistance to workers and business owners of color and make changes to the state’s education system to ensure achievement barriers for students of color are removed.

Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, wants to build on policing accountability measures she worked on last year and is proposing legislation to end liability protections for police officers. She also wants more robust background checks for all new police officers, which include psychiatric evaluations and racial bias tests.

The group of lawmakers also want to beef up critical social services and offer discount utility rates for low-income families. They hope to highlight the implicit bias that exists in the Child Welfare system and take a hard look at ending no-cause evictions.

“Members of the BIPOC caucus and increasingly the general public are aware of the legacies of racial inequality in Oregon,” Sen. James Manning, the state’s first Black Senate President Pro Tempore, said in a statement. “We are excited by the prospect of using 2021 to write a new chapter in that history, demonstrating a model of lawmaking with an intentional eye towards equity.”

Oregon’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been fraught with problems: distribution problems, logistical problems and communication problems.

While some frontline health care workers and the elderly — who are most at risk of dying — have yet to receive their vaccines, Oregon Health & Science University offered vaccinations to all of its staff and students, including those who are working from home. At one point, the state struggled to keep track of where and how the vaccine was being used. And the governor’s most recent decision to prioritize teachers ahead of the elderly has sparked controversy.

This legislative session, Rep. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, a pulmonologist and critical care physician, will chair the Health Care Subcommittee on COVID-19.

“The Speaker gave me this opportunity to lead this work, in no small part, because I do bring this lens of a frontline clinician who has taken care of COVID-19 patients,” Dexter said.

Part of the committee’s work, Dexter said, will be providing oversight of how both the executive branch and the Oregon Health Authority are addressing the COVID-19 crises. She said she plans to track how the vaccines are being rolled out, how testing should continue and what is happening with contact tracing.

“I think I’m in the role of bringing people into the committee in order to elevate transparency and accountability in these areas,” Dexter said.

Dexter said she’s unsure what policy her committee will tackle. But there is likely a battle brewing over how to offer businesses and schools coronavirus liability protections.

As businesses work to reopen, many have called on the Oregon Legislature to protect them from lawsuits. In broad strokes, the idea would be to offer liability protections for businesses who follow state regulations and act in good faith to stem the spread of COVID-19 from lawsuits, making an exception for cases of gross negligence. Health care providers are seeking the same protection, and members of both parties have offered vocal support.

Lawmakers also expect to take up a bill being pushed by labor unions that would grant compensation payments to essential workers who contract COVID-19, regardless of whether they can prove they caught the virus at work.

Every 10 years, the Legislature is tasked with turning newly collected data from the U.S. Census into brand new maps sketching out the districts Oregon’s 95 state and congressional lawmakers will represent. It’s their task to design districts within each chamber that contain roughly the same amount of people, among other requirements.

With Oregon expected to receive an additional member of Congress this year, bringing the state’s tally to six, things are likely to get especially interesting — and contentious.

Redistricting holds major importance for the next decade of politics in the state. Minute decisions about boundary lines help dictate which political party holds power, but can also impact sitting lawmakers’ path to reelection.

That’s part of the reason redistricting has historically been extremely contentious in Oregon. Lawmakers have rarely been able to pass their own set of district maps into law — either because of disagreements between the two chambers, a governor’s veto or court challenges. That means redistricting has often fallen to the Oregon Secretary of State, who is responsible for drafting maps if the Legislature fails.

A rare exception to this partisanship occurred in 2011. That year, the House was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, and the Senate was nearly split. Lawmakers were able to successfully pass a plan that was not challenged in court.

This year, however, Democrats have a stranglehold on the process. Not only do they hold the governor’s office and supermajority control of both chambers, but responsibility for crafting a plan would fall to newly elected Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan if lawmakers don’t pass a proposal.

The Legislature must await the arrival of census data before it can get to the bulk of its work, meaning the process likely won’t begin in earnest until at least April, and perhaps well later. House and Senate committees plan to hold a set of public hearings with communities around the state to solicit input on new districts, though it’s not entirely clear how those will work under existing COVID-19 restrictions.

With the passage of Measure 110 during the November election, possessing small amounts of street drugs like cocaine, heroin or meth is no longer a criminal offense in Oregon beginning on Feb. 1.

The measure promises to usher in big changes for the state’s budget picture, since it siphons a large portion of cannabis taxes toward increasing access to treatment. But Measure 110 will also be a central focus of lawmakers grappling with the criminal justice system.

“This is a pretty big social change,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who chairs the newly renamed Senate Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Implementation Committee. “We’re moving away from a criminal-based sanctioning of addiction and moving into more of a health management mode ... . There are usually some unintended consequences.”

Lawmakers are also likely to take up other major changes in how the state dispenses justice.

Prozanski has introduced a bill that would dismantle many of the mandatory minimum sentences voters approved under 1994′s Ballot Measure 11. Rather than forcing judges to levy certain strict sentences for serious violent crimes, Prozanski’s bill would make those sentences “presumptive” but allow a judge to revise them up or down depending on the circumstances of a case. It would also allow prisoners convicted of most Measure 11 crimes to get out early for good behavior. Mandatory penalties for murder would remain in place.

“I’m going to challenge the DAs and their deputies to do their job,” Prozanski said.

The bill is expected to face pushback from many of the state’s district attorneys. It would require support from a two-thirds supermajority of members in each chamber in order to pass.

Lawmakers also might consider changing the state’s statute for “interfering with a peace officer,” a low-level crime that has frequently been used to arrest protesters in the last year. And the Legislature could take up a proposal from NIKE and public defenders to make it far easier for people to expunge past crimes from their record.

Another voter-approved measure is likely to get its share of attention this year: Measure 107, which ensured that the state’s Constitution has language specifically allowing campaign finance limits.

Varying court decisions over the years have made campaign finance limits something of a moving target, and Oregon is currently one of five with no limits on campaign contributions.

Now, lawmakers’ ability to set those limits is without question. Far less certain is whether they will be able to find agreement.

Like redistricting, campaign finance limits are a touchy subject because they can impact how much firepower lawmakers have to conduct robust campaigns. Depending on their details, new rules could effectively create a system that favors one party over the other. (For instance, a policy allowing labor unions to contribute more than business interests could be a net positive for Democrats.)

Adding to the complexity, some lawmakers fear that overly strict limits on giving or spending merely invite third-party dollars to flood close races or put messaging before voters that’s not approved by the actual candidate.

In 2019, the House passed a bill that would have set varying limits on donations to Senate, House and statewide races. That proposal didn’t have support in the Senate however, and died. Advocates of campaign finance limits say 2021 could end in a similar result.

“It will be challenging to find middle ground given the polar opposite views in the Legislature on this topic,” said state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who led the 2019 effort and is once again working on campaign finance this year.

That sentiment was echoed by Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who formerly chaired a committee studying campaign finance, and has released his own proposal for new regulations.

If lawmakers cannot converge on a new framework, campaign finance activists have promised to put forward strong rules before voters in 2022. Recent elections — both in the Portland area and statewide — suggest voters are ready to be rid of Oregon’s little regulated campaign finance system.

“I want a new system that doesn’t advantage any of the biggest players in Salem,” Golden said. “And I don’t know if we can do that in the building in Salem, so I think it’s healthy that we know citizens are out there, ready to do it for us if we can’t do it.”

One of the only tasks lawmakers are required to accomplish in the session is passing a new two year budget to plot out state spending from July 2021 through June 2023.

That task isn’t likely to be as daunting as many initially feared when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. In fact, state economists’ most recent forecasts for state income tax and lottery revenues suggest they are coming in higher than expected, and may grow in the coming biennium.

Those gains, however, aren’t expected to cover the rising costs of public services. At the same time, lawmakers have tapped into surplus funds the state had on hand as they’ve sought to assist people impacted by the pandemic, meaning they’ll have less money to start with.

The combination of factors has many bracing for cuts.

In a $25.6 billion proposed budget released in December, Gov. Kate Brown included several controversial cost-saving proposals, including closing three state prisons, cutting money paid to hospitals who serve state Medicaid recipients, and declining to increase funding to universities. Brown has since said she will close the prisons regardless of what lawmakers do with the budget.

Plenty of uncertainties remain before the Legislature passes a budget in late June. They’ll receive new revenue forecasts and February and May, and it’s possible additional federal aid could improve the state’s financial outlook.

One of the most dramatic and contentious debates of the 2019 legislative session was over a bill that would have required children without a qualifying medical exemption to be vaccinated in order to attend school — a step that would have made Oregon’s vaccine rules among the strictest in the country.

The bill generated hours-long hearings full of medical professionals and others who warned of outbreaks of disease if kids aren’t vaccinated, and others who believe that vaccines are unsafe for children. The bill wound up passing the House, but was scrapped in the Senate as part of a deal to get Republicans to end one of two walkouts staged in 2019.

Now, the fight appears poised to begin again. Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, reintroduced the vaccine proposal as a committee bill for the Senate Rules Committee he chairs.

“Before the whole broader conversation about vaccine rollout with the COVID response, I wanted to make sure that we had a vehicle in place to have the conversation about what we need to do on public health,” Wagner said, adding that he intends to pass the bill, Senate Bill 254, this session. “There’s science and there’s fiction.”

Already, the bill is among the more high-profile bills of 2021, generating its own hashtag and becoming the subject of a call to action from the group Oregonians for Medical Freedom, which supports vaccine exemptions.

“We need YOU to start writing letters to your local papers about SB254,” the group said in a recent email to supporters. “If enough of us are writing to our local papers, maybe some letters will finally be published.”

SB 254 would not mandate a shot for COVID-19. That could change if the Oregon Health Authority added the virus to its list of required vaccines.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting