By editorial board • 

Legislature feeling heat over homelessness and addiction

The Oregon Legislature embarked Monday on its most ambitious 35-day even-year short session ever. Housing, homelessness and addiction figure to dominate the agenda, but thorny budget issues, including soaring wildland firefighting costs, are among a host of other matters also demanding attention, if not action.

Adding to the challenge are the aftereffects of a pair of measures voter passed handily at the polls — 110, decriminalizing simple possession of narcotics like fentanyl and heroin in a push to stress treatment over punishment, and 113, banning legislative walkouts that now promise to bar 10 of the Republican Party’s 17 senators from re-election.

Voters endorsed the former by an emphatic 58.5% to 41.5% in 2020 and the latter by an even more emphatic 68.3% to 31.7% in 2022.

But thanks to a fentanyl-fueled epidemic of addiction and overdoses, they seem to have reversed course on blanket decriminalization or hard drugs. And lawmakers are expected to move that direction, though minority Republicans perhaps further than majority Democrats.

Bitter feelings over 113, just upheld by the Oregon Supreme Court, led Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp to warn that he and his nine affected colleagues would have nothing to lose by gumming up the works again this year with a lame duck walkout.

In one sense, that’s true.

Four still have two more years to serve before their terms are up; two were already planning to retire in safe GOP districts; one is aiming to pass the torch to his son and another to his wife. That just leaves Knopp, whose district has turned Democratic enough to cloud his future anyway, and our own Brian Boquist, whose district remains so Republican that Democrats have little hope no matter who they nominate.

But in another sense, it matters a great deal.

Their party could get punished at the polls if it continues to defy more than two-thirds of the electorate, particularly in a short session with such a compelling agenda. So we’re betting that’s not going to happen.

The session centerpiece figures to be SB 1537, Gov. Tina Kotek’s ambitious housing and homelessness package. It would fast-track urban growth boundary expansion for cities ensuring at least 30% of the addition was devoted to affordable housing.

In the bargain, the governor is asking the Legislature to pump $500 million into housing and supporting infrastructure, with an emphasis on green and affordable construction, and another $100 million into homeless prevention and shelter programs.

Locally, Rep. Lucetta Elmer is angling to help Yamhill County get enough state funding to deliver 400 new housing starts over the next five years.

Her Oregon’s Workforce legislation would allocate funding to 10 municipalities to cover infrastructure needs associated with housing developments meeting the governor’s 30% affordability standard. Elmer said she had been working with the cities of McMinnville, Sheridan, Carlton and Amity, each of which had projects lined up.

On the addiction front, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that the threat of criminal penalty is needed to persuade addicts into treatment in large numbers. But by and large, Republicans seem to be angling for tougher terms than Democrats.

Encouragingly, there seems to be broad bipartisan agreement on the urgency of cracking down harder on dealers while expanding treatment opportunities and facilities for users — and in the recognition a price will have to be paid for that in hard dollars.

On the wildland fire front, there is broad agreement on the need for expanded effort in the face of climate change, but less so on how the cost should be covered.

Democratic Reps. Paul Evans and Elizabeth Steiner are eyeing a property tax surcharge that all Oregon property owners would pay, while Democratic colleague Jeff Golden is proposing reinstatement of a tax on the value of timber cut on commercial timberland, which would limit the burden to commercial timber interests. Senate President Rob Wagner said he was keeping an open mind, so would allow competing proposals to go forward.

Overall, the mood seemed to be more collaborative that combative, despite Knopp’s “nothing to lose” admonition.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle quoted Beaverton Democrat Kate Lieber, who is helping run the show in her capacity as Senate majority leader, as saying, “I think we agree on more than we disagree.” Here’s hoping that’s true, as we only have 35 days to work with and five of them are already in the books.


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