A view of Swan Island in north Portland on a sunny winter day in January 2024. (Lynne Terry/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
The Legislature held its first week of the five-week session, and it was intense. Hearings started early, about 8 a.m., and some went on until 9 p.m. Oregon Capital Chronicle was there to cover it all.
First up, the economy. Legislators have hundreds of millions of dollars to play with, as Julia Shumway reported. State forecasters projected on Wednesday that Oregon will have a surplus of nearly $1.7 billion by next June, or $1.3 billion discounting a transfer to the state’s rainy day fund. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Steiner of Portland, a chief budget writer in the Legislature, is scrutinizing the numbers to determine how much money the Legislature can safely spend.
One of the biggest funding bills of the session is Gov. Tina Kotek’s $500 million omnibus housing proposal that includes a package of incentives and policy changes intended to boost construction and meet her goal of building 36,000 homes annually. As Shumway reported, it would establish a new state office to help cities meet their housing goals, allocate about $200 million for grants and loans to cities and tribal councils to pay for infrastructure, dedicate another $200 million for the middle-income housing revolving loan fund and direct $20 million for grants to build homes that use electricity, rather than natural gas, for heating and cooking.
It has wide support: Kotek said it has the backing of business groups, labor unions, housing developers, farmworker advocacy groups and the Community Alliance of Tenants. About twice as many people who submitted written comments wrote in favor of the bill compared with those in opposition.
But it does include a sensitive issue that’s drawn dissent: a proposal to give cities outside the Portland metro area more flexibility to add up to 75 or 150 acres to their urban growth boundaries to expand housing. Anything tinkering with that invisible line around cities that limits growth touches a nerve in Oregon. The state’s land use laws are 50 years old and considered the “crown jewel of Oregon’s environmental legacy,” as one supporter of the status quo put it.
Kotek tried to get a similar urban growth boundary bill passed last session but it failed by one vote.
Oregon’s addiction crisis dominated several hearings, including two that stretched into the night. Lawmakers are wrestling with the role of police in dealing with users who possess illicit drugs, as Ben Botkin reported. Written and oral testimony showed wide disagreement about the approach the state should take, whether to enact misdemeanor criminal charges and how diversion programs would work. Democrats also want funding for residential facilities for drug users in recovery, but it’s unclear how soon “shovel ready” projects would be up and running, given the Oregon Health Authority’s slow rollout of previous programs to expand treatment.
Providers have worked for years on treating people with an opioid disorder with methadone, considered the gold standard. But the Legislature has yet to spend general funds on expanding federally regulated clinics that offer methadone. This session it’s considering ways to lift some barriers to medication-assisted treatment for opioid abuse, for example, by banning prior authorizations, but so far it has no plans to pay for more methadone clinics. The state’s opioid treatment czar told the Capital Chronicle that the state could use up twice as many clinics as it has now.
In other news, Alex Baumhardt reported on the state treasurer’s plan to divest PERS, the $94 billion Public Employees Retirement System that currently serves about 160,000 retirees, of many investments tied to fossil fuels. Treasurer Tobias Read’s plan, which cost $2 million to develop, aims to reduce fossil fuel holdings by 60% by 2035. The goal is to have a “net zero” portfolio of investments in PERS, with enough holdings in companies that are cutting or reducing emissions balanced with those tied to heavy emissions.
Baumhardt also reported on widespread criticism of the higher education governing system. Faculty from most of Oregon’s seven public universities and students say the system is broken, with students unable to afford housing, relying on Medicaid and food assistance and strapped with mounting debts. They said that public universities essentially have become private institutions that continue to raise tuition every year. In true Oregon fashion, lawmakers are considering a bill that calls for a study of overhauling the university’s governing system and the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which is supposed to boost postsecondary access.
Other stories covered this week: One bill aims to reduce the plight of foster kids, and we’ll write more about that next week; Democrats are divided on funding wildfires; Disbility Rights Oregon is suing Washington County over its response to people in a mental health crisis; and attorneys for Democratic U.S. Rep. Andrea Salinas and Republican Mike Erickson, who ran for her congressional seat two years ago, had their day in court in a defamation case over ads run by Salinas.