After GOP walkout, Oregon lawmakers reconvene to focus on housing and drugs

Feb 3, 2024, 10:28 PM | Updated: Feb 5, 2024, 10:14 am

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers convened Monday for the start of a short legislative session that is expected to be dominated by homelessness, a housing shortage and plans to overhaul the state’s pioneering drug decriminalization law as overdose deaths surge.

Lawmakers will have just 35 days to pass bills. For now, legislative leaders have indicated that bipartisan lines of communication are open as they overcome any political tensions still lingering from last year’s Republican walkout over measures related to abortion, transgender care and gun rights, which ground the Legislature to a halt for a record six weeks and disqualified 10 GOP state senators from reelection.

All senators were present for Monday’s opening floor session.

“The Senate has completed its organization and is ready for the business of the 2024 regular session of the 82nd Legislative Assembly,” Democratic Senate President Rob Wagner said after roll call and other matters of procedure were settled.

Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek has urged lawmakers to concentrate on the state’s most pressing issues.

“My No. 1 focus for the legislative session is to put as much as possible into the effort to improve housing production in the state,” Kotek said. “That is the ultimate solution to our housing and homelessness crisis.”

The sole bill introduced by Kotek this session is a sweeping housing measure that would make changes to Oregon’s hallmark land-use law to facilitate the construction of homes, among other things. In place since the 1970s, the law placed growth boundaries on cities in a bid to prevent urban sprawl and preserve farmland and forests.

Kotek’s measure would grant cities a one-time exemption to the rule, allowing the addition of new land for housing in a so-called urban growth boundary. It would require 30% of new units in expansion areas to be affordable housing.

The proposal would build on changes made to the land-use law last year, when lawmakers passed a bill to increase available land for semiconductor development. The bill allowed Kotek to designate up to eight sites for urban growth boundary expansion to be used for such purposes.

Kotek’s roughly $500 million housing package this session also would include $20 million in grants she described as “climate-friendly” incentives. The grants would be available for housing projects where cooking appliances, heating and water heaters are powered by electricity instead of natural gas.

Another top priority for the governor is expanding and increasing funding for summer learning programs in a bid to help students overcome learning losses largely stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The more heated debates this session are expected to revolve around proposed changes to the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law.

Facing growing public and political pressure and one of the largest national spikes in overdose deaths, Democrats have unveiled a bill that would undo a key part of the law by once again making the possession of small amounts of drugs a low-level misdemeanor. The move would enable police to confiscate drugs and crack down on public use, its authors said.

Measure 110, approved by voters in 2020, directed the state’s cannabis tax revenue toward drug addiction treatment while decriminalizing “personal use” amounts of illicit drugs. Possession of under a gram of heroin, for example, is only subject to a ticket and a maximum fine of $100.

Republicans say Democrats’ proposal doesn’t go far enough. They want “personal use” possession to be a higher-level misdemeanor and treatment to be mandatory.

House leaders from both parties acknowledged there will be policy disagreements but said they were focused on building relationships and adopting a “no surprises approach” to avoid the communication breakdowns that contributed to last year’s GOP walkout in the Senate.

“We have an agenda in front of us that we need to focus on,” said House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, a Republican. “If the system breaks down and we don’t produce for Oregonians, that’s a problem.”

While Senate leaders did not tout their working relationships to the same extent, minority leader Tim Knopp, who led last year’s walkout, said he has had positive meetings with Wagner.

Wagner said he spent the interim period between sessions traveling across the state to visit Republican senators in their home districts and described having “good and open conversations” with Knopp.

Knopp is among the 10 GOP senators who have been disqualified from seeking reelection after last year’s lengthy walkout. Under a voter-approved constitutional amendment aimed at stopping such boycotts, lawmakers with more than 10 unexcused absences cannot run for reelection. A group of GOP senators, including Knopp, had challenged their disqualification in a lawsuit that was rejected by the Oregon Supreme Court.

The high court ruling upheld an administrative rule implemented by the secretary of state’s office last year stating that lawmakers with at least 10 unexcused absences could not seek office for the immediately following term.

Taking another step to prevent walkouts, Democrats this session have introduced a joint resolution requiring a majority of lawmakers to be present for a quorum, rather than two-thirds.

Republicans’ walkout strategy has been based on denying the two-thirds quorum needed for the House or Senate to conduct legislative business. If passed, the proposed constitutional amendment would be put to voters.

Kotek said she has been in contact with Republican leaders and isn’t concerned about policy differences erupting as they did last session.

“Let’s focus on housing, let’s focus on behavioral health, let’s focus on summer learning,” Kotek said. “This isn’t a fancy session. Let’s stick to the basics.”

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After GOP walkout, Oregon lawmakers reconvene to focus on housing and drugs