From guns to wildfires, legislators heading to Salem soon to push changes

SALEM — Legislators will roll up their sleeves for some speedy politicking in February, tackling some of Oregon’s thorniest problems.

When they gather for the month-long legislative session, legislators want to improve the state’s care for people with mental illness and its ability to fight increasingly destructive wildfires.

They want to protect the state’s air quality by decreasing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Also high on the “to do” list is moving thousands of Oregon’s homeless people off the street and into housing.

Lawmakers expect to cooperate across party lines in the Democrat-controlled Legislature to progress on run-of-the-mill issues and budget fixes.

But the greenhouse gas proposal poses the risk of a political blowout. Last year, Senate Republicans fled the state to avoid taking a vote on a similar proposal. They have said such an act remains an option for them in February.

Other controversial issues coming back to life include campaign finance reform and firearm regulation.

Here’s a guide to what to watch once legislators convene in the Capitol on Feb. 3:


The issue: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that about 15,800 Oregonians are homeless. About 64% are “unsheltered,” meaning they live in public or private places not meant for human habitation, such as cars or public parks. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, wants lawmakers to declare a state of emergency and to provide roughly $120 million in funding to help create more shelters, build affordable housing and preserve existing affordable housing stock.

What’s at stake: The living arrangements for thousands of Oregonians who are confronted by rising rents and a thin supply of housing they can afford. Moving people off the streets and out of cars makes it easier to provide social services to homeless people who have mental health, addiction and other challenges.

Key players: Kotek, state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, chair of the House Human Services and Housing Committee, and state Sen. Shemia Fagan, chair of the Senate Housing and Development Committee.


The Issue: The Oregon State Hospital is struggling to accommodate an influx of patients from counties. Judges send defendants for treatment so they can participate in their own defense. In December, the hospital for three weeks stopped admitting other people needing treatment to make room for defendants.

The Oregon Health Authority wants $20 million to add 50 beds to the hospital’s Junction City campus. The move would add 94 workers and shift some patients to the new beds, freeing up space in Salem. Lawmakers may consider providing more money for mental health services in communities across the state. Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, is proposing the state evaluate the need for more behavioral health professionals. 

What’s at stake: The National Alliance on Mental Illness ranks Oregon as one of the states with a high prevalence of mental illness, and the state hospital has struggled to keep up with demand for its specialized services. Without more money, the state hospital could fall out of compliance with a court order and then face new lawsuits or penalties over inadequate care. Meanwhile, judges struggle to find places for those not requiring hospital-level care within their own communities, resulting in the release of people who need treatment.

Key players: Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen; Oregon State Hospital Superintendent Dolly Matteucci; OHA Behavioral Health Director Steve Allen; Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland; Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay; Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego.


The Issue: Oregon could change the way it prevents and suppresses wildfire. The governor’s Council on Wildfire is proposing better ways to plan fire suppression, assess risk and prevent fires. Gov. Kate Brown intends to ask for up to $200 million over two years for the work.

Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, wants to modernize the state Forestry Department and expand its ability to use aircraft on wildfires.

What’s at stake: Despite an average fire season last year, where about 16,867 acres burned, the growing threat of climate change has lawmakers and forestry officials feeling like they got lucky. Wildfire costs in 2017 and 2018 set new records. Such costs are expected to grow if the state does not spend more to prevent and mitigate fires, placing continuing strains on state budgets. 

Key players: Jason Miner, the governor’s natural resources policy advisor; Matt Donegan, chair of the state Council on Wildfire; Sen. Herman Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass; Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland; the state Forestry Department. 


The issue: Democratic lawmakers are making another attempt at a “safe storage” gun control bill. Another bill would allow local governments to ban firearms from public buildings. 

What’s at stake: Advocates their proposal is intended to reduce deaths and injuries in Oregon caused by guns. The legislation could also broaden the public buildings where guns could be banned.

Key players: State Reps. Rachel Prusak, D-West Linn; Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro; Oregon Firearms Federation; the NRA; Oregonians for Safe Gun Storage and Reporting Lost/Stolen Firearms; Moms Demand Action. 


The issue: Democrats are pursuing limits on greenhouse emissions by industry in their latest version of a cap-and-trade program.

What’s at stake: Scientists say the impact of climate change grows more distinct each year and environmentalists contend Oregon needs to be a leader at taming damaging emissions. But opponents in industry and agriculture say new costs would harm employers and consumers.

Key players: Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland; Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay; Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem; Sen. Herman Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass.


The issue: Oregon is one of a handful of states that don’t limit donations to political campaigns. Supporters say major donors have an outsized influence on Oregon politics while opponents say campaign donations are a form of free speech that shouldn’t be restricted. New limits could change Oregon campaigns because candidates would have less money to market themselves.

What’s at stake: Voters will consider a constitutional amendment in November that would free the Legislature to regulate campaign finance. Legislation could be considered that would script new campaign limits if that ballot measure passes. Key leaders, including the governor, have backed away from pushing such legislation for now.

Key players: Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland; Honest Elections Oregon. 

Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.

Reporter Jake Thomas: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

Reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.