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After fast start, Oregon legislators prepare for friction over guns, rent control and gender-affirming care

A close-up of cherry blossoms. The upper parts of the Oregon Capitol's rotunda, including the "gold man" statue, are visible through a break in the blossoms.
Chris Lehman
Cherry blossoms are in full bloom at the Oregon Capitol. This photo was taken April 6, 2023.

Something stinks in the Oregon Capitol.

In most legislative sessions, that might be a metaphor about politics. This year, it’s literal.

The statehouse is undergoing renovations that will make it more accessible and seismically resilient. But with the work underway, industrial fumes have repeatedly made their way into the Senate chamber, finally prompting the addition of air purifiers.

“I got a headache from it yesterday,” state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said in early April. “After about 30 minutes my eyes start watering.”

Migraine-inducing smells notwithstanding, the first half of the 2023 legislative session has been marked by an air of bipartisanship and major action.

Urged by Gov. Tina Kotek, the Democrat-controlled Legislature wasted no time building a $200 million package aimed at easing the state’s dire housing crisis. And spurred by federal deadlines, lawmakers rushed to roll out the red carpet for new semiconductor facilities.

“This is the place where we do the messy work,” state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, said Thursday, while urging her colleagues to vote in favor of the semiconductor package she’d helped craft. “It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a place where we make tough decisions. It’s a place where we plan for Oregon’s future.”

Taken together, the housing and semiconductor bills may wind up becoming the shorthand by which the 2023 session is known years from now. Halfway through the five-month session, they are, by far, the most consequential items to find their way to Kotek’s desk.

But while lawmakers have so far avoided major fights, plenty more is coming.

Oregon Capitol building as pictured from across Court Street. Construction equipment is visible in the front plaza.
Chris Lehman
The Oregon Capitol, as seen on April 6, 2023. The building is undergoing extensive renovations.

Looming battles over gun regulations, abortion, transgender health care and rent control promise to raise the temperature in Salem as adjournment nears in late June.

And the Legislature has yet to seriously grapple with budget realities that could be far starker than the state has seen in years. The final budget numbers won’t be known until May, when economists deliver a revenue forecast that will be used to build the next two-year spending plan.

“We’re creating this budget in a time of great economic uncertainty,” state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, a Portland Democrat, said in March.

Big fights loom

Every week, Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, and Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, meet to discuss the week’s agenda. The regular conversations have done little to ease the tension in the upper chamber.

State Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, in session at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, March 20, 2023.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
State Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, in session at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, March 20, 2023.

In the session’s first 11 weeks, minority Republicans have refused to waive the constitutional requirement that bills be read in their entirety before a final vote. The move is one of the only options GOP lawmakers still have to leverage power given their minority status in both chambers, but so far it’s made seemingly little impact on what proposals live or die. Democrats have said they will simply hold marathon floor sessions to pass their priorities – meetings dominated by a computer voice droning out bills line by line while senators mill around.

On the top of Knopp’s list of legislation he’d like to kill: a Democratic effort to further limit annual rent increases in the state.

“(Democrats) want to run their progressive liberal agenda, and we will do what we can to stop it,” Knopp said. “Because we don’t believe the vast majority of Oregonians, including those we represent, believe in the progressive liberal agenda.”

In 2019, Oregon became the first in the nation with statewide rent control. The current law prohibits raising rent by more than 7% per year, plus inflation. With the recent spike in inflation, Democrats are pushing to further lower the cap.

“(Democrats) want to double down on more government interference and regulation and what they will end up getting is a problem that is 10 times worse and hurts more Oregonians because no one will want to invest in multifamily development here,” Knopp said.

Perhaps the most emotionally-charged bill so far of the session is a sweeping measure to guarantee access to abortion and gender-affirming care. The bill, House Bill 2002, passed out of a committee last week.

The measure is a top priority for Democrats and would require insurers to pay for laser hair removal and facial feminization surgery, among other things. It would also protect health care providers who perform abortions or gender-affirming care from legal repercussions.

The bill is a reaction to both the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn protections provided in Roe v. Wade and what is happening in neighboring states. Last week, Idaho Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, signed a law banning minors from traveling out of state for abortions without parental consent. The new law creates a crime and if broken, could be punishable by up to five years in prison.

Over on the House side of the state Capitol, the relationships between legislative leaders feel easier.

“I think we have formed a friendship if you will,” House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson said of her political dynamic with House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.

But Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, said the new dynamic has yet to manifest in Republicans feeling like their agenda for the current session is getting a fair hearing.

“The collaboration is there,” she said. “The ability to create working relationships inside this building is there and I think this session, unlike previous sessions, we have a different atmosphere in this building … So, I would say we’re taking a step forward but we’re not there yet.”

For her part, House Democratic Leader Julie Fahey of Eugene says she hopes to continue to collaborate with Republicans, even as the parties work through contentious issues.

"We are not always going to agree 100 percent of time on every issue. That's pretty clear," said Fahey. "But we have seen in the first part of session, we very clearly came together and worked on those shared goals and were able to make progress."

Republican Reps. Vikki Breese-Iverson, left, and Bobby Levy last month. They are sitting at a desk on the floor of the Oregon House.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Republican Reps. Vikki Breese-Iverson, left, and Bobby Levy last month. Despite a spirit of bipartisanship over housing and semiconductors, GOP lawmakers are frustrated.

Gun safety debates

Along with abortion access, gun regulations are a perennial point of friction in Salem — and this year is no exception. Democrats are moving along several fronts to expand the state’s requirements for gun ownership, and they often cite ongoing mass shootings occurring with regularity around the country as evidence tighter controls are needed.

One major bill would outlaw so-called “ghost guns,” weapons that don’t have a serial number and so are untraceable by law enforcement. The bill, House Bill 2005, would also increase the minimum age to possess some guns to 21 and allow local governments to outlaw concealed weapons on their premises.

HB 2005 has inspired emotional testimony from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

“Anything we can do to cut down on the number of guns that are out there, I don’t care what kind of guns they are... is something that will be helping and will at least give me some sense that we are actually doing something,” Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said at a recent hearing, after discussing an uptick of shootings in and around his district. .

Republicans argue the bill will make people with concealed handgun licenses unwitting criminals if they happen into a public place where weapons are not allowed. They believe the bill will be found unconstitutional after a legal challenge, and have chastised Democrats for speeding the proposal through.

“It’s a travesty that we can’t have adequate conversation and development of this bill,” said Findley, the Republican senator from Vale.

Complaints about the process have also sparked anger over two other gun bills moving in the Senate.

On March 24, state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, introduced a major amendment to Senate Bill 348, an otherwise dull bill requiring a state study on illegal gun possession. The Eugene Democrat, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, proposed replacing the bill’s contents with a far more lengthy proposal that would codify elements of Ballot Measure 114, a gun safety policy adopted by voters last year. The ballot measure is currently stalled pending court challenges.

After introducing the amendment on a Friday, Prozanski held a public hearing on the proposal the following Monday, generating outcry from gun rights advocates and Republican lawmakers about the tight turnaround.

Then Prozanski went further: He pushed through an amendment to another placeholder “study” bill, Senate Bill 393, without holding a public hearing. Prozanski told OPB such a hearing wasn’t necessary because the concept he’s putting forward — increasing wait times after a gun purchase — was already discussed as part of another measure that did receive a hearing.

That did not placate Republicans, who sent a letter to Senate President Rob Wagner on April 5 that said Prozanski’s strategy was “offensive to the character and tradition of democracy and diminishes the legitimacy of the Senate.”

While there’s little doubt that guns and abortion will come up for debate, the full spectrum of major issues lawmakers will ultimately pass into law is unclear.

Advocacy groups hope this is the year that lawmakers pass a set of limits on campaign contributions in the state. Kotek and Rayfield have both signaled they would give the issue attention, but bills to create limits have yet to receive a hearing.

“I’m convinced we can do it,” Rayfield said in March. “It’s a question of: Is this a session we can get it done?”

If the Legislature does not take action, voters could see one or more ballot measures enacting campaign finance limits in 2024.

Also uncertain is whether lawmakers will take meaningful action to address the state’s ongoing public defense crisis. With a severe shortage of public defenders, thousands of people facing criminal charges — even some sitting in jail — are languishing without an attorney. A bill that would fundamentally change some aspectsof Oregon’s unique system of public defense is before the budget committee.

Other issues that could see legislative action include bills to set basic staffing levels in Oregon hospitals, make Oregon lawmakers among the best-paid in the nation, outlaw Styrofoam takeout containers, and put major funding toward mental health care and revamped reading instruction in schools.

The fate of many bills will be sealed on May 17, the day that state economists will unveil the revenue forecast lawmakers use to build a budget.

In a framework released in March, the chairs of the budget committee proposed a two-year plan light on new major spending. With federal cash related to COVID-19 drying up and a potential recession on the horizon, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner and Rep. Tawna Sanchez said the state needs to prioritize paying for existing services — many of which expanded during COVID — rather than launching new programs.

That picture could change if economists find reason to anticipate a lot more tax revenue than they predicted in the last forecast in February. But if the outlook remains the same — or grows worse — any bills proposing significant new spending will face a steep challenge.

“There isn’t really a whole lot of room for a whole lot,” Sanchez said in March. “We really want to just ensure that we take care of just the base needs.”
KLCC's Chris Lehman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Lauren Dake, Dirk VanderHart
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