By editorial board • 

Spirit of compromise fosters major breaktrhoughs in Salem

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, rancor ruled throughout the 160 days set aside for odd-year legislative sessions in Oregon. Senate Republicans staged a walkout that halted work outright for six weeks, and bitter partisan infighting largely thwarted progress before and after.

This year, the same cast of characters assembled for an even-year session limited by law to just five weeks. And it did so in the face of long-festering housing, homelessness, addiction and campaign finance challenges that had a broad array of voters and interest groups clamoring for scalps.

But in the span of just 24 weekdays, lawmakers managed to not only to enact major remedial legislation on all four fronts, but do so on a remarkably non-partisan basis. That was true even with campaign finance reform, which the Legislature had put off previously for 30 years running.

For good measure, they also ponied up $3 million for a Pendleton sports complex, $15 million for a Hillsboro Hops baseball stadium, and, closer to home, $7 million for workforce housing projects, $2 million of it earmarked for McMinnville and $1.5 million for Amity.

First-term Rep. Lucetta Elmer gets credit for the housing money. She also sought line-item allocations for Dayton, Carlton and Sheridan, but those failed to survive the inevitable legislative vetting.

At the session’s outset, Senate Minority Leader Tom Knopp, one of 10 senators barred from seeking re-election as a result of the walkout, warned Republicans would have nothing to lose it they staged a repeat. But with the exception of cantankerous octogenarian Art Robinson, who opened 18 of 19 floor sessions with remonstrances, the dissident Senators seemed to fully and faithfully engage this time around.

Several converging forces seemed to contribute to the turnaround, including:

- Replacement of the insular and uncompromising Kate Brown with more collaborative and accommodating Tina Kotek in the governor’s office.

- The threat of ballot measures reversing Oregon’s brief experiment in decriminalization of hard drugs and long-held status as one of just five states placing no limits on campaign contributions, in the event the Legislature failed to act.

- Surveys showing overwhelming support from a frustrated electorate — and in a potentially watershed election year, no less — for aggressively addressing all four of the center stage issues.

- A whole host of legislators either mounting bids for higher office, retiring voluntarily or being forced out over the illegal walkout, easing some longstanding tensions.

On the housing front, Kotek sought $500 million and got $376 million toward a goal of getting Oregon on track for adding 36,000 new units of catchup housing a year for the next 10 years. She also secured a controversial one-time exemption for urban growth boundary expansions designed to spur new housing, but on less generous terms than initially envisioned.

The three-bill package includes a $75 million revolving loan fund for affordable housing projects and $94 million for infrastructure improvements designed to support residential development. The hope is to spur residential development sufficiently to rein in runway rental and home prices.

She also got $65 million for emergency shelters, motel conversions and navigations centers designed to help get the homeless off the streets.

On the addiction issue, Republicans open the session demanding full-on repeal of heavily treatment-oriented Measure 110. Democrats open the session not even sure they could swallow a retreat on the measure’s controversial decriminalization element.

In the end, they shook hands in overwhelming fashion on a compromise retaining the treatment emphasis but reversing the decriminalization element.

Most surprisingly, Oregon’s major political parties, business and labor financing kingpins and public interest reform factions managed to get together during this year’s short session on a campaign finance reform measure with real teeth. It doesn’t take effect until the 2027 start of another two-year election cycle, giving all concerned time to adjust.

It establishes stricter limits on cash and service than either business or labor would like. It also closes loopholes in earlier versions that might have subverted much of the intent. The impetus seemed to stem largely from fear voters might enact something significantly more restrictive.

If only we could bottle the spirit of compromise descending on Salem this year and ship it east to Washington, D.C. It seems in extraordinarily short supply in our nation’s capital, with no relief even remotely in sight.


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