The Oregon State Legislature will start this year’s legislative session tomorrow (Tuesday, February 1).
The session will last 35 days: In even years (which happen to coincide with elections at most levels of federal, state, and local government in Oregon), the state legislature has a ‘short session.’ In odd years, Oregon’s legislative sessions last 160 days. Usually, the short session is seen as a way to handle relatively minor issues that arise in between longer sessions, but this year has a packed agenda.
Your state, your agenda
You’re practically guaranteed to find something on this year’s legislative agenda that you care about. Make the time to call into your state senator’s and state representative’s offices and make your opinion known. Paper letters, social media posts, and in-person visits (if both you and your legislator are comfortable with that option) are all effective as well. Emails to your elected officials are also useful if you can’t access other options, but are usually seen as one of the least effective options by everyone except state legislators, who like that emails can be easily archived.
If you aren’t sure who represents your geographic area in the Oregon State Legislature, you can look up that information on their website by typing in your address. Personally, I find that copying that contact information directly into my phone’s contacts makes calling officials a little easier — if I want to make a phone call part of my daily routine for, say, 35 weekdays in a row, I don’t want to look up phone numbers every day.
For issues you feel particularly strongly about, consider providing testimony during committee and legislative hearings. Once bills have been assigned to committees, sign up links will be available on the Oregon State Legislature’s website.
The State Capitol will be open to the public, including galleries where visitors can watch lawmakers, for those who feel comfortable watching proceedings in person. However, there are new safety restrictions in place, both for COVID-19 and for physical security. Committee meetings will remain virtual.
New leadership and new members
The Oregon State Legislature has seen major leadership changes in the past few months. Tina Kotek resigned as House Speaker in January, as did Christine Drazan, the House Minority Leader. Rep. Vikki Breese Iverson has already replaced Drazan and Rep. Dan Rayfield will be replacing Kotek, once some administrative details are handled Tuesday morning. Several major committees have also seen turnover; perhaps the most significant appointment is that of Rep. Tawna Sanchez as co-chair of the legislature’s joint budget committee. Sanchez is the first Native American to hold the highly influential position. Senate President Peter Courtney has announced his intention to retire and Governor Kate Brown is term-limited, both of which will likely change some of the behind-the-scenes politics for this legislative session.
In addition to new leadership, new members are joining the state legislature as vacancies continue to be filled. Here are some of the Portland-area changes:
- Travis Nelson — Multnomah County commissioners appointed Nelson as the new representative for House District 44, which includes much of North Portland. Nelson is replacing Rep. Tina Kotek, who resigned to focus on her campaign for governor. He will be the first openly Black LGBTQ+ man in the state legislature and only the 10th member of color in the current Oregon House of Representatives. Nelson is also running for the seat in this year’s elections.
- Rachel Armitage — Armitage was appointed in January to replace Betsy Johnson (another resignation for a gubernatorial run) in the state senate. She’s already announced that she doesn’t plan to seek a full term.
- Akasha Lawrence Spence — Lawrence Spence was appointed after Ginny Burdick took a new state job. Lawrence Spence is not seeking the seat and has withdrawn her candidacy for Portland City Commissioner.
- Janeen Sollman — Sollman moved from the State House to the State Senate to replace Chuck Riley after his resignation. She was appointed by Washington County commissioners, who will appoint a replacement for her house seat.
Major agenda items to know about
This session’s agenda is likely to be contentious. Breese Iverson has already implied that House Republicans are willing to use walkouts in order to push their legislative agenda. Various organizations and media have argued that a Republican refusal to participate should be met with compromise — but that strategy is risky at best.
I made a first pass at the legislation up for consideration, although I haven’t been able to read through all bills that have been posted so far. These bills have potential for improving current issues. While the details available are still up for debate, you may want to let your state senator and state representative know if you support these bills.
- Protections for tenants in affordable housing complexes if that housing is withdrawn from publicly supported housing (SB 1557) — Many affordable housing complexes in Oregon are aging out of eligibility for a tax credit that incentivized their construction roughly 30 years ago. Owners of these complexes are selling them to investors who are removing them from affordable housing programs and raising rents. This bill would reduce the harms done to tenants in the process and hopefully prevent people from losing access to housing and becoming homeless.
- Restoration of voting rights for people who are currently incarcerated in Oregon (HB 4147) — Laws preventing prisoners from voting stem from White supremacy, as well as skew election outcomes in ways that further harm those prisoners. A substantial coalition of Oregon organizations have already signed up to support HB 4147. Next Up Oregon is collecting signatures of support to submit to legislators. You can add your signature at this link.
- Compensation for victims of wrongful convictions (SB 1584) — Currently, people wrongfully convicted of crimes in Oregon have limited ways to pursue compensation beyond pursuing a lawsuit on their own. Creating a system to handle such cases will make compensation available. Given that Oregon has a drastic shortage of public defenders at the moment, this program will be even more necessary in the next few years.
- Limits on forcing farmworkers to work unpaid over time (HB 4002) — Farmworkers are routinely expected to work far more than 40 hours per week, without any overtime pay. In fact, farmworkers are specifically excluded from receiving overtime pay on the federal level (due to racist efforts dating back to the 1930s). This bill would prohibit that sort of exploitation gradually, by prohibiting employers from forcing workers to take more than 55 hours in one week. It would also cover some of the costs of overtime pay for farmers. Breese Iverson suggested that House Republicans could walk out over this bill.
- Protections for school superintendents (SB 1521) — The Coalition of Oregon School Administrators have asked legislators to create protections for school superintendents who follow state laws, including enforcing mask and vaccine mandates.
- Oversight for school boards (HB 4029) — School boards have outsized impacts on education, as well as a variety of youth rights. Few board members have expertise or training coming in. This bill would create requirements around training, as well as implement processes.
- Compensation for student athletes whose likenesses are used (SB 1505) — Student athletes may make money for the schools they play for, but have been barred from sharing in the funds they earn. SB 1505 would require that student athletes receive royalties when their names and likenesses are used for profit.
These are a few bills to watch. While they may have some items worth consideration, they could quickly evolve into problematic legislation.
- Online access to school districts’ curricula (HB 4022 and SB 1575) — While the State of Oregon already requires school districts to provide curriculum information publicly, this bill would require school districts to post curriculum information on their websites. More transparency around how school boards operate is good, but the first version of the bill is supported by a few officials concerned with the possibility that someone might be teaching advanced legal frameworks on institutionalized racism to K-12 students. The bills would also enable parents to prevent their children from participating in sex education. Sponsors included Representative Christine Drazan before she announced her resignation to focus on her gubernatorial run.
- A constitutional amendment to let parents choose schools for their children (SJR 201) — This proposed amendment would enable parents to request money from the state to pay for their children’s education at private schools, offering a roundabout way to defund Oregon schools.
- Control of illegal cannabis farms (SB 1587, SB 1541, HB 4016, HB 4061) — A number of bills are under consideration in order to control the growing number of illegal cannabis farms, especially in southern Oregon. However, there’s been little discussion so far of factors like the skewed enforcement of cannabis controls agains people of color, as well as concerns that further criminalizing cannabis farms will increase their reliance on human trafficking for workers.
I’ll be posting updates on the Oregon State Legislature’s short session as part of PDX.Vote’s regular digests as they come up.