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Oregon Legislature approves $400 million in spending to address rent assistance, other emergencies

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Oregon lawmakers on Monday approved more than $400 million in funding to protect tenants, assist farmers, and address a number of other pressing issues around the state.

In a special legislative session that featured more agreement than it did contentious votes, lawmakers completed their business in a single day. But Republicans and Democrats continued to differ on what steps Oregon should be taking as the COVID-19 pandemic nears the two-year mark, with some Republicans downplaying the need for further action.

Headlining Monday’s session was a $100 million investment to replenish the state’s rent assistance program and another $100 million to create a statewide system of more localized eviction-prevention services.

Lawmakers also extended eviction protections for renters awaiting rental aid from the state in an effort to prevent more than 10,000 Oregon households on the brink of eviction from losing their housing. They’ll have until June 2022 to apply for protection which would expire in September 2022 at the latest.

“It is the Oregon way, that when we see somebody who needs help, we rise to help,” said Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and one of the principal architects of the plan to rescue struggling renters.

Jama and Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, are the two legislators who originally called on Gov. Kate Brown to extend protections for renters caught in the debacle surrounding the state’s rent assistance program.

Although ranked fourth in the nation for distributing federally provided emergency rent assistance, Oregon has continued to struggle in getting checks out the door as fast as Oregonians have requested them.

When Brown announced her legal authority wouldn’t allow her to intervene, Jama and Fahey pushed for a special session and legislation to pour additional money into the program, which already has obligated all of its $289 million.

“I believe this is a common sense approach, building on an existing bipartisan framework that will prevent evictions caused by administrative delays, and will provide certainty for both tenants and landlords.” Fahey said.

Other topics the Legislature took action on Monday include allocating $100 million to help farmers and ranchers hurt by this year’s drought and unprecedented heatwave, as well as $25 million to combat water theft and violence caused by illegal marijuana grow operations in southern Oregon. The cannabis bill also contains protections for exploited migrant workers.

Lawmakers also directed $18 million to the Oregon Department of Human Services to help bolster refugee services and support partnerships with the state’s five resettlement agencies.

They expect to welcome approximately 1,200 people who fled Afghanistan following its collapse to the Taliban in August. At least 600 of those people — nearly half of which are children — will arrive by the end of February.

Following the Senate’s adjournment Monday, Senate President Peter Courtney released a statement expressing a tone of triumph, a 180-degree turn from the statement he released when Brown first called to convene lawmakers two weeks ago.

“Oregonians can be proud of their legislators today. Democrat and Republican,” Courtney said. “We came together to send relief and hope to Oregonians in crisis.”

Courtney’s statement belied one tense interaction in the Senate prior to adjournment. Sen. Dallas Heard, a Myrtle Creek Republican and the chair of the Oregon Republican Party, repeatedly refused to wear a mask on the Senate floor.

“I’m just exercising the rights of the free people of Oregon,” Heard said, prompting an exasperated response from Courtney. After consideration, the Senate president deemed Heard in violation of state employment laws and Senate rules, and had him escorted out of the chamber.

Topics for the special session were contained to just four bills approved by a special joint committee appointed by Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.

The committee hosted a public hearing Saturday to both satisfy a need for feedback on the concepts and turn them around quickly in hopes of a single-day session.

They met for a two-hour work session early Monday to pass the bills onward for full consideration by the House and Senate. All but one — the bill containing rent assistance funding and election protections — passed unanimously.

Four of the six Republicans appointed to the committee took issue with the approach to solving Oregon’s latest in a series of housing emergencies, saying the bill constitutes a bandage on a much larger problem rooted in a lack of housing stock.

“When you have a problem… just throwing more money at it is not going to fix the issue,” said Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. “This is the third or fourth major housing issue we’ve tried to deal with over the last few years.”

But Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, of Bend, argued during floor debate that the state made commitments to both tenants and landlords that they’d be taken care of, a promise the state needed to fulfill.

“We have a problem,” Knopp said. “Unemployed people don’t have the ability to pay rent, and so in order to protect them, and to protect landlords, the only option we have here today in this emergency session is to provide those funds.”

Knopp said his support came, in part, because the bill also sets a deadline of June 30, for safe harbor protections against eviction to expire. After that date, tenants behind on their rent will no longer be protected if they have not applied for rent assistance, and eviction proceedings for nonpayment of rent can begin in most cases.

The bill addressing rent assistance passed the Senate 22-6 with two members excused. It was later approved by the House 37-18 with five members excused.

Accountability was a recurring and bipartisan theme throughout discussions on the state’s response to the pandemic induced housing emergency. Several lawmakers noted they’d like to see a performance audit of the ways the Oregon Housing and Community Services delivered rental aid over the past year.

Jama and Fahey issued their own letter Monday calling on the state’s audits division to initiate a review.

Those requests come just days after Canby Republican Christine Drazan — candidate for governor and former House minority leader — called for the resignation or firing of OHCS Director Margaret Salazar. Drazan repeated that call Monday.

On legislation combating illegal cannabis operations, lawmakers agreed there is an urgent need to crack down on the violence, human rights violations and water theft propagated by drug cartels operating in southern Oregon and other parts of the state.

“What you tolerate is what you will get more of. And if you make it easy, (the cartels) can just consider it a cost of doing business,” Knopp said.

Knopp referenced a recent seizure of more than 1,000 plants, 200 pounds of processed marijuana and nine firearms in Central Oregon as anecdotal evidence that this issue is spreading, noting that “ground zero” for this crisis is Jackson and Josephine counties.

Drought relief also proved to be a consensus topic.

Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, responded during floor debate to comments by Findley who claimed that drought is a uniquely rural issue.

Frederick argued that’s not true, saying Oregonians in urban areas such as his district often want to help mitigate the severe impacts drought has on the state’s rural communities.

“Once I tell my constituents about this particular issue, they are very clear: They want to see something done to help those folks who are living on farms and dealing with agriculture because, very simply, they like to eat,” Frederick said.

The funding bill containing $18 million for Afghan refugee resettlement services, $2 million in gun violence reduction for east Multnomah County and dollars for other pandemic-related relief too received widespread support, passing the Senate in a 26-2 vote and the House by a margin of 52-3.

Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, said that the funding for the East Metro Outreach, Prevention and Intervention program is critical for communities such as his.

“This investment will bring resources to some of the most diverse communities in Oregon in a concentrated effort to reduce violence with upstream initiatives,” Gorsek said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Sam Stites, Dirk VanderHart