Brown, Democrats outline big spending plans as GOP calls for limited action in short session

Oregon Senate (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregonians would be better trained for jobs, have help buying a home and have wider access to child care under legislative priorities outlined Tuesday by Gov. Kate Brown and top leaders in the Oregon Legislature.

Brown’s priorities, which would add up to hundreds of millions of dollars in spending, are likely to garner Democratic support but Republican leaders in the state House and Senate indicated they opposed ambitious projects for the upcoming session and might even resort to walking out. 

Lawmakers meet starting Tuesday, Feb. 1, for a session that can run no more than 35 days. Brown, leaders in the House and then in the Senate held three briefings Tuesday with reporters on their legislative agendas.

Brown said lawmakers have about $2 billion in unexpected tax collections and federal pandemic money to spend, though she indicated there is legislative disagreement about the exact amount. She said the legislature should save $500 million for the next two-year budget cycle, starting July 1, 2023, because she expects state revenue to flatten.

Topping her wish list is $200 million for a plan, Future Ready Oregon 2022, that she’s shopped among Democratic leaders. The plan aims to help ethnic and racial minorities and underserved communities obtain training for careers in health care, manufacturing and construction. 

“The goal is to give Oregonians the tools and resources to create career pathways in ways that are sustainable and create jobs that provide a living wage,” Brown said in her briefing.

Democratic and Republican leaders have their own priorities, which include spending more money on housing and summer school programs. Republicans are also eager to curtail Brown’s emergency powers as the Covid pandemic enters its third year.

In the run-up to the session, the political outlook in Oregon has shifted, with key leaders stepping down to run for governor and new lawmakers participating in their first session. The third session since the pandemic hit marks the first time with new, airport-style security at the entrance of the Capitol.

One of Brown’s priorities is housing.

“We have 15,000 Oregonians across the state who don’t have a safe, dry, warm place to call home,” Brown said. “There is clearly great need out there in every single nook and cranny of the state, and it is my hope and my expectation that the Legislature will make another significant investment in affordable housing, homelessness prevention” and other assistance.

A handout from her office said the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department, which has distributed money to help tenants and landlords, is proposing $400 million for affordable housing, “at-risk” manufactured housing and homeownership support and counseling. The agency also intends to expand a state program that provides matching funds for low-income Oregonians who save money to buy a home. 

This would come on top of $215 million lawmakers approved in a December special session to provide even more rental assistance and forestall evictions.

Brown hopes the Legislature will approve $150 million for child care and early learning programs, $200 million for salaries for behavior health care workers, $120 million to fund the Elliott State Forest on the southern Oregon coast, which has been approved as a forest research site for Oregon State University, and $120 million to move Harriet Tubman Middle School away from Interstate 5 in northeast Portland.

Brown acknowledged that she has an ambitious agenda, but said she’s proposing one-time investments because much of the money available came from one-time federal appropriations during the pandemic.

“It’s important that we invest these dollars in a way that spurs economic recovery from the pandemic and closes the economic gaps that we’re seeing in communities of color and our low-income families and our rural communities,” Brown said.

In separate briefings, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said they support the governor’s workforce package. State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, the Senate Republican leader, indicated he would support parts of it. 

But state Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, head of the House Republicans, said she opposed taking up ambitious bills in a short session, indicating that Republicans could walkout as a last resort as they did in 2020, when they foiled Brown’s cap and trade bill on climate change.

New leaders in state House

In the House, Republicans and Democrats said they will focus on addressing housing costs and education.

House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said Democrats want to increase access to health care, child care and housing. They want to improve the state’s supply of homes, including funding modular homes for those displaced by wildfire and emergency housing for the homeless. 

Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, expected to be named House speaker next week, said Democrats also plan to move proposals concerning natural resources. 

“It wouldn’t be any session if we weren’t focused on the environment,” he said. 

Rayfield said Democrats will seek historic drought relief that could make the state more resilient to climate change, and adopt changes to the state Forest Practices Act intended to reflect a pact struck last year by environmental and industry interests.

Rayfield said he is not certain legislators will approve $2 billion in spending during the month-long session, as Brown advocated, saying the state is going into a two- to three-year recovery period from Covid and wildfires that will require financial reserves. 

Breese-Iverson said House Republicans want to focus on budgetary issues like cutting taxes and rolling back Covid-related mandates and regulations on businesses, helping to “restore education standards” and aid students struggling socially and academically. 

Breese-Iverson said she was “cautiously optimistic” about working with new leaders in the Democratic majority, but that House Republicans were prepared to take drastic steps if the Democrats push legislation that is a nonstarter with Republicans. Democrats hold a 37-23 edge in the House.

“If we see highly partisan and complex bills being rushed through the Legislature in February, House Republicans are prepared to use the tools necessary,” Breese-Iverson said. 

Breese-Iverson said Democrats’ proposal to require employers to pay overtime to farm workers who have already worked 40 hours in a week could be a sticking point for Republicans, who want more research and conversation with stakeholders.

Bipartisan spirit in state Senate

On the Senate side, Democratic leader Rob Wagner and Knopp, his Republican counterpart, were more optimistic that the legislative session would be a bipartisan success, at least in some areas.

“I think that you’re going to see that when the Senate president closes the gavel on this session that there’s going to be a lot of bipartisan support in terms of what we see out of the policy agenda,” said Wagner, D-Lake Oswego.

Democrats hold 18 seats, Republicans, 11, and one is independent. Another Republican senator, Cave Junction’s Art Robinson, is still a registered Republican but doesn’t caucus with his party. 

Knopp anticipates his caucus will support proposed pay bumps for essential workers in health care, law enforcement and the food and agricultural industry. He co-sponsored a failed bill in 2021 that would have provided one-time bonuses to such workers.

Republicans also will likely support some parts of Brown’s proposed $200 million workforce plan, he said, but he cautioned that it’s difficult to pass major policy changes during the shorter session. In particular, Republicans would prefer to send more money directly to workforce boards in local communities rather than the $95 million in grants Brown proposed that could go directly to individual workers or to organizations that train them.

“We want to make sure that it affects the workforce as immediately as possible,” Knopp said. “We obviously need to have long-term retraining, and I’m fine with targeting specific industries, but we just want to make sure there’s an efficient use of tax dollars and there’s enough transparency and oversight where it’s not just a giveaway to associations and organizations that can’t perform in this particular arena.”  

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he’s spending the week before the session talking to legislative leaders about their priorities and trying to reach agreement on budget and policy issues. He’s not as optimistic as Wagner or Knopp.

“It’s a terrible session,” he said. “It’s like a long special session. But Knopp knows, and Wagner knows, and now Dan Rayfield knows that our most difficult task is between now and next Tuesday when we go in.” 

Wagner said he expects senators will introduce legislation aimed at improving teacher retention, and that he and Courtney expect to dedicate some money toward summer school programs. 

“We did the summer school thing last year, whatever you want to call it, and it was highly successful,” Courtney said. “But we can’t just rest on our laurels.”

This session will be Courtney’s last – as it will be for Brown, who’s been involved with the Legislature since 1991.

“It’s incredibly bittersweet for me,” Brown said. “I grew up in the Capitol.” 

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