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Despite Oregon’s many problems, state lawmakers begin 2023 legislative session optimistic

People standing on the floor of the Oregon House with right hands raised.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
/
OPB
Members of the Oregon House take an oath at the House Organizational Session on Jan. 9, 2023.

The 2023 Oregon legislative session kicked off on an optimistic note on Tuesday.

For the first time in nearly three years since the COVID-19 pandemic limited access, lawmakers, lobbyists, the public and reporters were back in the state Capitol. Legislative leadership has changed dramatically, about one-third of new lawmakers just took office, and there’s high-level agreement from both political parties on the most pressing issues facing the state.

“We spent a lot of time looking at campaign mailers during the last six months and the one thing we saw that was very uniform — it didn’t matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican — every candidate is talking about housing. Every candidate is talking about housing supply. Every candidate is talking about strengthening education,” said House Speaker Dan Rayfield on Tuesday. “So, I think that this is the opportunity of commonality we have this session.”

Before the global pandemic disrupted the Oregon Legislature (and the world), legislative sessions were frequently interrupted by political acrimony and partisan battles. Democrats aggressively pushed through massive tax increases to pay for education. Republicans derailed entire sessions by fleeing the state Capitol to block legislation they didn’t have the votes to defeat.

This time around, lawmakers from both political parties expressed hope that a new session could serve as a restart of sorts. There will inevitably be disagreements — Republicans would like an overhaul of the corporate activity tax that many Democrats see as a once-in-a-decade achievement to fund schools — but legislative leaders from both parties nodded to the previous dysfunction and said they hope this session is done differently.

“I think there is mutual respect and I think that is very important as we move into this session … to get us through some of the tough issues in front of us,” said House Republican Leader Vicki Breese-Iverson.

Lawmakers’ paramount task this session is passing a new two-year budget.

Gov. Tina Kotek will unveil her budget proposal, which is often used by lawmakers as a guiding post for their legislative work, next month. The new governor has already made it clear she plans to prioritize building up the state’s housing stock and funneling money into programs that will help ensure people don’t lose their homes. But Kotek can only do so much: it’s legislators who take the governor’s proposed budget and drill down into the details to ensure the state government can balance its checkbook.

For the past several years, the federal government has helped bolster state budgets through the pandemic. That is largely expected to change this session and lawmakers are also bracing for what could be a mild or moderate recession without COVID-era financial help.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, who is the co-chair of the powerful budget writing committee, said Oregon remains in a strong position with plenty of money in reserves. But she also said the state has several one-time programs that were started during the recession thanks to federal dollars that may need to be cut this session.

“How we invest your and my tax dollars should reflect our values as a state,” Steiner said.

The big goal: Housing

In her inauguration speech last week, Kotek made it clear housing will be the priority this session. She declared a homelessness state of emergency and called for a swift uptick in the production of new housing units. She also asked the Legislature to move swiftly to approve $130 million to help more than 1,000 Oregonians who are at high risk of losing their homes.

Lawmakers are largely aligned with the governor on the need to move quickly.

One important piece of legislation this session will be House Bill 2889, which would change land-use systems with the goal of removing construction barriers. It would also set housing production targets for local governments. The precise language of the bill is a work in progress, but the goal is to address the state’s housing shortage, which is estimated to be at more than 100,000 units.

Governor Tina Kotek waves to the crowd, followed by her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, after her inauguration at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff /
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Governor Tina Kotek waves to the crowd, followed by her wife, Aimee Kotek Wilson, after her inauguration at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Jan. 9, 2023.

Lawmakers will also consider legislation that would allow the conversion of commercial buildings to workforce housing, ways to preserve manufactured homes, provide cash to people on the verge of becoming homeless and offering tax credits for preserving affordable housing.

Along with housing, statewide workforce shortages are exacerbating problems that already existed in education, public defense and behavioral health.

Lawmakers hope they can address a massive crisis with the lack of public defenders this session. Currently, there are people incarcerated in Oregon who do not have anyone representing them. In response, legislators said they are considering ways to help public defenders pay student loans and how to retain staff already in the job.

When it comes to education, lawmakers are drafting bills to help remove barriers to becoming teachers and how to attract and retain more teachers. Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis, is proposing the state dedicate more staff and money to help students with disabilities.

Lawmakers will also look at how to increase staff at residential treatment facilities for people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis. There is currently a shortage of both people working in mental health and treatment facilities. Oregon’s largest hospitals are suing the state for not providing adequate care for mentally ill patients, saying the state has put more stress on hospitals and forced them to house people for months in space not meant for them.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lauren Dake