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

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers began a new legislative session Monday, hoping to turn a fresh page after a record-long Republican walkout last year ground the Capitol to a halt for six weeks and disqualified 10 GOP state senators from reelection.

All Republican senators were present for the opening floor session, and lawmakers from both parties have said they’re unified in their focus on the top issues facing the state: homelessness, a housing shortage and surging drug overdose deaths.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, a Portland Democrat, described feeling excitement and relief when the chamber gaveled into session with all members present. She said she hopes her GOP colleagues continue to show up, now that the Oregon Supreme Court has provided clarity on how Ballot Measure 113 — which voters passed in 2022 in a bid to stop walkouts — will be applied.

“We are working in good faith to make sure that we are addressing their needs as well as the needs of Oregonians,” she said of Republican senators, adding that both parties were taking it “day by day” for now. “I was really pleased to see all of our colleagues on the floor today.”

Lawmakers will have just 35 days to pass bills during the short session. 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 $500 million 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.

Not all Democratic senators supported a similar version of the bill last year. But Sen. Michael Dembrow, who co-chairs the Environmental Caucus, said the governor’s team has been proactive in reaching out to hesitant lawmakers and proposing certain changes to win their backing.

“I would say that we are very, very close to something that will be broadly supported,” Dembrow said.

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 a proposed overhaul of 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 have 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 have not touted their working relationships to the same extent, minority leader Tim Knopp, who led last year’s walkout, said he has had positive meetings with the chamber’s Democratic president, Rob 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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