Drug addiction, housing and homelessness to dominate session

Lawmakers and Gov. Tina Kotek have differing approaches, but all agree on the problems

By: – February 5, 2024 
Oregon House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, talks to reporters with House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, and House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, talks to reporters with House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, and House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregon lawmakers are starting the legislative session, promising to aim squarely at the state’s homelessness and drug addiction crisis.

From Gov. Tina Kotek to Democratic and Republican legislators, elected officials agree on the priorities, especially with fentanyl overdoses skyrocketing in Oregon and across the country.

They agree police need more tools to investigate and charge fentanyl drug dealers. They also agree that addiction treatment and services need to expand. And they want to cities to add affordable and middle-income housing to address the state’s homelessness crisis and high home prices.

They have their differences, however. Republican and Democratic lawmakers, for example, disagree on criminal charges for possession of small amounts of drugs, which was decriminalized after voters passed Measure 110 in 2020.

And the Oregon Supreme Court ruling last week against Republican senators who participated in the 2023 walkout gives them no incentive to show up if they object to proposals, they said. Lawmakers need a quorum with two-thirds of members present to conduct business.

That could put more pressure on the agenda, which is ambitious for a short session. They come every even-numbered year and are intended for emergencies, budget adjustments and technical fixes.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead:

Housing and homelessness

Gov. Tina Kotek has just one bill for the session, and it’s aimed at the housing and homelessness crisis in Oregon.

“We have a critical shortage of housing supply across the state,” Kotek told reporters last Wednesday at a legislative preview event.

Kotek’s proposal, Senate Bill 1537, would allow cities to expand their urban growth boundaries, but with a caveat: at least 30% of the land within the expansion area would have to be designated for affordable housing.

Kotek stressed the proposal would give cities a one-time chance to add land, something she failed to get passed last year. Her current bill includes $500 million for housing programs, including grants and loans to cities to purchase land and build infrastructure for affordable housing, loans for developers and grants for environmentally friendly homes that use electricity instead of natural gas.

That allocation includes $5 million for a new Housing Accountability and Production Office within the Department of Land Conservation and Development to help local government agencies add new homes.

Kotek has separate requests for $65 million to support existing homeless shelters and $35 million to help homeless prevention efforts like rental assistance. Kotek said the ice storms that clobbered Oregon in January demonstrate the need for communities across the state to have adequate shelters.

Gov. Tina Kotek talks to reporters on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at an event to preview the legislative session. The governor and lawmakers plan to prioritize the state's homelessness and drug addiction crises during the 2024 session. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Gov. Tina Kotek talks to reporters on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, at an event to preview the legislative session. The governor and lawmakers plan to prioritize the state’s homelessness and drug addiction crises during the 2024 session. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle) 

Drug addiction and overdoses

Democratic lawmakers have released a wide-ranging proposal to address the state’s drug addiction crisis.

The proposal would allow police to charge people with a low-level misdemeanor for possession of a small amount of drugs. Measure 110, which voters passed in 2020, decriminalized possession for users and put a share of cannabis revenues toward addiction services and programs. The measure allowed police to issue $100 citations to people found with a small amount of hard drugs, but those citations largely failed to motivate people to enter treatment.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers differ on the severity of the punishment: The Democratic proposal would carry a sentence up to 30 days in jail, and the person could avoid a charge if they entered a treatment program. Republicans want a more stringent misdemeanor penalty that carries up to a year in jail.

“Fentanyl has been a significant game changer as it relates to the world of street drugs and it is deadly and disastrous for Oregonians,” Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said during a news conference last week.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers largely agree on other proposed changes, including expanded treatment opportunities, more residential services and tools to help police rein in drug dealers, such as higher penalties for selling drugs.

“I think we agree on more than we disagree,” Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, said at the same event.

Lawmakers on a joint committee have worked since last year on gathering information and crafting proposed changes, work that Kotek said is “moving in the right direction.”

She said the state needs more than punishment to address the crisis.

“I would hope everybody looks at this as a comprehensive package,” Kotek said at a news conference.

Lawmakers also want to hear from members of the public on the issue.

“The public input is really important to this process,” House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said.

Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Corvallis, talks to reporters about the upcoming legislative session with Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Corvallis, talks to reporters about the upcoming legislative session with Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle) 

Wildfire funding

Democrats have at least three proposals addressing wildfire funding in the state.

Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, is proposing both a new state body dedicated to public safety and wildfires and a ballot measure to be presented to Oregon voters that would fund it. The ballot measure would include a tax of up to 25 cents on every $1,000 of assessed property taxes. According to the Legislative Revenue Office, this could bring in at least an additional $125 million per year to wildfire prevention and response.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, wants the timber industry to step up its funding. He’s proposing a ballot measure to reinstate a tax on the value of timber logged on industrial forestland. This would send tens of millions of dollars to the forestry department and ease pressure on the state’s general fund, according to Golden.

“Asking all Oregonians to pay even more for wildfire protection does not address the very large tax advantages that have been developed for companies whose lands (the state) protects,” he said.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, will propose reducing the millions in per-acre fees that timber and grazing landowners pay to the state for wildfire protection after ranchers expressed anger about fees going up as much as 40% in a year. She walked back part of her earlier proposal that would have charged every property owner in the state a $10 fee. The proposal no longer includes details about where the forestry department would make up that lost revenue, but she is co-sponsoring Evans’ tax proposal.

Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, is backing Golden’s proposal and introducing a bill that would require the state’s investor owned utilities such as PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric to report to the State Fire Marshal and the forestry department every time a fire is started because of the company’s infrastructure. Such reports could be used in court if a large wildfire starts from the companies’ electrical equipment and leads to property losses. It would also mandate that utilities cannot recoup the costs of fires that their equipment starts by raising rates on customers.

Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said there was not an effort among House or Senate leaders to encourage collaboration on an omnibus wildfire bill rather than considering all three independently.

“Wildfire funding is a real challenge,” Wagner said. “I think I’m open to hearing from everyone on solutions.”

Reporter Alex Baumhardt contributed to this report. 

Source: Drug addiction, housing and homelessness to dominate session  – Oregon Capital Chronicle

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