Legislative plans could repair roads in rural Oregon, promote energy efficiency, help the homeless

State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, leader of the Senate Republicans, speaks during a recent session. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

With two weeks left in the legislative session in Oregon, lawmakers are finalizing their plans for spending hundreds of millions of dollars in unexpected revenue.

The Democratic leadership has identified seven priorities, including spending money on rural communities, behavioral health, public safety, homelessness, workforce development, energy efficiency, education and help for low-income Oregonians.

If their plans go through, some roads and bridges in rural Oregon are likely to be repaired, sewer systems could be improved and waits to get into residential mental health facilities could shorten. 

Homeowners who want to install solar systems may get rebates and those who lack job skills are likely to be offered training programs to build careers in health care, construction and manufacturing.

People who are homeless may get access to temporary housing while apartment dwellers will get financial help to install air conditioning units and cooling centers will be created to keep people safe during heatwaves. 

Lawmakers have had more money to spend this session. A state forecast increased the budget by nearly $1 billion from unexpected tax revenue.

And in a relatively novel approach, the majority Democrats have handed $100 million to their Republican colleagues to spend as they decide. The impact is expected to be most profound in rural – and Republican – corners of the state.

“Rural Oregon was an area that we looked at and said this is an area that we wanted to target investment in terms of infrastructure and economic development,” Rayfield said during an online news conference with reporters on Monday afternoon.

The Democratic majority gave Republicans budget-writing authority to decide how to spend the money. That move, first reported by OPB, marks a step towards more civil relations between the two parties, which have been combative and fraught with suspicion and anger in the past. Republican leaders said they were initially suspicious of the offer, wondering what Democrats wanted in return. Rayfield said the budget offer wasn’t an olive branch but rather a practical move because Republicans represent many of the rural areas of the state. 

“There (are) absolutely no strings attached,” Rayfield said. “This is about making meaningful change in communities across the state.”

Republican leaders, who reached out to their legislators for priorities, welcomed the opportunity to have a say in the budget.

“It’s a good day when Republicans and Democrats can come together for the good of all Oregonians,” Senate Republican leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said in a statement. “This money will help move forward important public projects throughout Oregon.” 

The group that worked on proposals included lawmakers from the coast, mid-Willamette Valley and the central, southern, eastern and north-eastern areas of the state, according to a news release. 

“These will be transformational investments to improve rural communities for generations and create hundreds of good paying jobs,” Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, said in the release. He worked with Republicans on spending plans.

Rayfield said Republicans, who initially identified more than $100 million in spending, are scaling back some of their proposals. Details are still being worked out, but legislative sources said money will go toward flood prevention, road safety, sewer improvement, wastewater and drinking water treatment and broadband support.

Energy efficiency, climate-related projects

Fighting climate change is one of the Democrats’ priorities. They’re earmarking $100 million for energy efficiency improvements, solar energy, drought relief and helping Oregonians stay cool during heat waves. 

“Drought, fire and other climate disruptions put the most vulnerable Oregonians at great risk,” Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton said in a release. “By investing in resilient homes and clean energy, we can build safer and healthier communities, reduce the cost of energy for consumers and create good paying jobs.”

The package includes bills aimed at keeping Oregonians cool when temperatures rise to life-threatening levels. Proposals expected to pass include money for cooling and warming centers and a provision that would allow renters to put air conditioning units in apartment windows. 

Part of the $100 million will be used for sewer upgrades, wastewater treatment and drinking water treatment, while other money will go towards helping Oregonians impacted by wildfires and drought. 

The state – and the West – is heading into its second year of drought, which has left reservoirs low and sparked an early fire season. Weather forecasters expect a wet March and April and the return of hot, dry temperatures in May. The spring rain could help prevent an early fire season this year.

The $100 million in climate-related spending includes adding more money to a fund that helps low-income Oregonians repair and renovate their homes to make them safer and more energy efficient, according to a news release. The Healthy Homes Repair fund was established in the 2021 session, and, according to Rep. Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale, is part of a commitment by lawmakers to help people who’ve been the most affected by the climate crisis while promoting clean energy.

Budget writers also plan to set aside money for another program established last year. Lawmakers budgeted $10 million for the Oregon Solar and Storage Rebate Program, which allows low-income homeowners to receive 60% rebates of the cost of a solar system. Other homeowners qualify for a 40% rebate.

Legislators also plan to invest in electric vehicles by spending money on charging networks for trucks and provide consumers new incentives to drive electric vehicles. As part of their focus on emission reduction, a task force will look at ways of reducing emissions from homes and buildings, the second main source of climate pollution.

A focus on public safety

Rayfield said details of plans to spend more than $100 million on public safety will be released later this week. 

“Some of it will be focused on behavioral health support,” Rayfield said. “There will also be a focus on victim supports.”

A bill to help behavioral health residential providers recruit and retain staff moved out the House Behavioral Health Committee and is now with the Joint Ways and Means Committee. The bill includes about $200 million, with increased reimbursement rates for Medicaid patients. It’s not clear the spending on that has been whittled down. Behavioral health providers have said they need $200 million to stay afloat.

Another public safety bill before the Legislature would give money to community groups for intervention and violence prevention. Rayfield said lawmakers realize that they need to focus on that to break the chain of violence, adding that the public safety initiatives had bipartisan support.

“We’re hoping to have a fairly substantial package released on Wednesday,” Rayfield said.

Homelessness and affordable housing are also Democratic and Republican priorities, and both sides are keen to raise the standard of living. Proposals are in the works to increase tax credits for low-income Oregonians and spend tens of millions of dollars on grants for child care providers to help them hire more staff and expand their programs. Surveys show that Oregonians spend a bigger share of their income on child care than many other Amercians. 

Overtime for farmworkers

One of the most controversial bills this session is a proposal to pay overtime to agriculture workers after a 40 hour workweek. House Bill 4002 passed out of the House Committee on Business and Labor on a party line vote, and is now in the House Revenue Committee. Rayfield said it would soon move out of that committee to the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which works on the budget. 

He said Democrats hope to get to a point where Republicans can support the proposal. It would phase in time and a half pay for farmworkers after a 40-hour work week over five years, with tax credits to employers for six years. Republicans proposed allowing employers to essentially have a break for paying overtime for 22 weeks, which would cover peak seasons. 

Rayfield said the Democrats convened “listening sessions” with Republicans to hear their position on the bill and formed a joint committee in the Senate, with another to be announced on Tuesday that will try to broker a deal.

Rayfield said Democratic lawmakers are “trying to understand how we can get to a ‘Yes.’” Farmworkers have been denied overtime since the 1938 federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Their supporters say the law was racist, originally targeting Black farmworkers in the South, and that they deserve to get overtime like other workers.

Republicans have insisted that the proposal will put family farms out of business and prompt corporations to scoop them up.

Rayfield indicated that Democratic leaders are seeking a better working relationship with Republicans.

“The philosophy of our office and what we’ve communicated and what our office believes is to honor and respect the Republicans and their right to be able to protest on the floor by reading bills,” Rayfield said, referring to a process requiring a full reading of sometimes lengthy bills.

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