Oregon Legislature ends 2022 session with big spending, policy changes, little political rancor

SALEM – With a final flurry of votes and speeches, Oregon legislators ended their 2022 session just before noon on Friday.

Depending on whether Gov. Kate Brown signs all of the bills sent her way — she told reporters Friday she’s reviewing everything carefully but isn’t planning any vetoes — the 32 days of legislative work will result in overtime pay for the workers who pick crops, roofs over the heads of Oregonians now living on the streets and job training programs to get more people working in health care, construction and manufacturing. 

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, who finished his first term as leader of the House, reflected on his comments from the session’s first day as he waited on paperwork Friday. 

“I said that I believed this could be the most significant short session we’ve ever had and I truly believe that,” the Corvallis Democrat said. “To be honest, I wasn’t sure if or how we could get everything done.” 

Rayfield and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, acknowledged that they didn’t accomplish everything they wanted to, and said legislators still need to watch to make sure the money they allocated gets used properly. But overall, both they and Brown were pleased with what was accomplished. 

“The Legislature has done its most important duty: to make the state better today than it was yesterday. I think we did OK,” Courtney concluded. 

Big spending

On Friday, the House and Senate approved $1.4 billion in new spending on housing, child care, rural infrastructure and summer school. An unexpected windfall in tax revenue cleared the way for more spending. 

The House vote – 41 in favor and 16 against – included Republicans but not all Democrats. Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, complained the deal was crafted behind closed doors. 

“Decisions were made largely in secret and almost always before the session started,” Wilde said. “The budget should involve sitting down and setting priorities – publicly.” 

He lauded the $400 million investment in housing but said it will not solve the state’s homeless problem. 

“We’re essentially kicking the can down the road,” Wilde said.

Reps. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville​, and Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, criticized the failure of lawmakers to invest enough to address the state’s shortage of public defenders. That, Bynum said, prompted her “no” vote.

“Our public defense system is in shambles,” Bynum said.

The additional spending totaled $5.8 billion, including $1.4 billion in general funds and $2.2 billion in federal funds. Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland and co-chair of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, said the budget includes $2.7 billion in reserves, including $760 million in general funds and $1.3 billion in a rainy day fund.

The general fund budget alone is now $1.4 billion higher than the $25.4 billion set by legislators last year for the 2021-2023 biennium.

Most of the expenditures are one-time investments and include $600 stimulus checks to more than 240,000 low-income households to help them with child care and other expenses. The checks must be sent by July 3.

Big issues

A bill mandating overtime for an estimated 86,000 farmworkers in the state threatened to stall the session with a Republican walkout. Instead, it was discussed in hours-long hearings and a special joint legislative committee was formed to find a compromise.

The two sides moved closer together but Republicans still opposed the final bill. Nevertheless, it passed with sweetened tax breaks for the $5 billion agricultural industry that will be phased in over six years and a plan to set up a grant or loan program with $10 million.

Overtime will be phased in as well, with farmworkers getting time and a half pay after a 40-hour workweek in 2027.

The bill will make Oregon the eighth state to mandate farmworker overtime, something they’ve been denied for more than 80 years. 

A bill to overhaul 50-year-old regulations on logging private forestlands passed. The Private Forest Accord was the product of a year of negotiations between logging groups and conservationists. Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said the legislature was “making history” by passing the bill that will impact more than 10 million acres of private forests and better protect fish habitat and beavers. 

Legislators from both parties started the session with ambitious plans to solve shortages of teachers, help students make up for lost learning due to the pandemic and deal with divisive issues around training school board members and protecting superintendents’ jobs. 

They provided hiring and retention bonuses for teachers, reimbursements to substitute teachers for their training costs, limits on the number of background checks for new school employees and made it easier for teachers from other states to begin teaching in Oregon. 

Districts still recovering from the impacts of wildfires will get a piece of $25 million to recover from steep enrollment declines. 

Superintendent jobs will be a bit more secure with the passage of a bill that requires school boards to give at least a year’s notice before firing a superintendent “without cause,” and prohibits school boards from firing a superintendent for following state and federal laws and executive orders. This was yet another vestige of pandemic politics that have roiled local governments, school districts in particular.

Missed opportunities

To show unhappiness with the Democrat agenda, Republicans insisted until nearly the end of the session on having every single bill read aloud – a droning recitation of often technical language. Hours spent listening to a computerized voice read aloud meant less time to debate bills, and many failed to make it.

Rayfield said he would have loved to have the Legislature pass campaign finance limits and pay increases for legislators, and he’ll work on those next session. Lawmakers punted campaign finance limits anticipating that voters would adopt them in November, but whether voters get a chance to weigh in on money in politics depends on the outcome of an Oregon Supreme Court case after Secretary of State Shemia Fagan blocked several proposed ballot measures. 

The votes weren’t there for legislative pay increases, he said. 

“If you had two or three more weeks, you might be able to get that one bill in a good spot to move,” he said. “But the one thing that I will always say is there are a lot of my bills that die. We’ve lived this long without my bills. We can live another 10 months.”

Courtney, who retires at the end of this year, said he wants the Legislature to change the state’s approach to higher education. He’s long advocated for community colleges and public universities to merge, something he said will save money for students and make it easier to move between the two.  

Senate Republican leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, bemoaned higher spending and policies he derided as part of an “extreme soft-on-crime agenda,” saying the session showed the need for more balance between the parties.  

“Even with our big disagreements, we got some good bipartisan things done for Oregon this session,” Knopp said. “Unfortunately, we left a lot of good policy on the table. Short sessions reveal priorities, and the majority’s priorities were misplaced in many cases.”

One such good policy, in Knopp’s eyes, is a bill he introduced that would create a pilot spending program for public schools to help homeless students, including by paying for their transportation to and from school. Despite having Democratic co-sponsors and making it unanimously out of a committee, the bill never received a vote in the Senate. 

Brown said she got everything she wanted out of the session. 

“We set the table at the beginning of the session,” she said. “I was really, really clear with legislators that we had an incredible opportunity to make significant investments and ensure that our working families could thrive.”

Pandemic politics

The legislative session began Feb. 1 with protesters opposed to mask and vaccination mandates rallying outside the Capitol and attempting to push their way into the building. Several ultimately succeeded in getting in without masks by citing medical exemptions.

Strife over masks and pandemic-related limits continued until the end of the 32-day session. Senate Democrats voted to remove Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Myrtle Creek and the chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, from the Senate earlier this month over his refusal to wear a mask as another maskless protest took place outside.

Heard has been listed as “absent” every day in the Senate and has not appeared in the chamber except for two days when he made a maskless protest. Two other senators, Independent Brian Boquist of Dallas and Republican Art Robinson of Cave Junction, were excused all session because of what they described in emails to Courtney’s office as ongoing medical treatment. 

On Friday, Knopp made a final unsuccessful attempt to end the Senate’s mask rules. The House, meanwhile, changed its rules to tie its mask requirement to public health guidance, something the Senate already did. This means mask requirements in the building will end March 12, as they will throughout the state. 

For the first time, visitors, lawmakers and staff went through metal detectors and bag checks each time they entered the building, because of a new law banning firearms at the Capitol in response to a 2020 attempt to breach the Capitol. Courtney said he wasn’t happy about the changes, but he changed his mind after a Capitol employee told him they felt safer with the metal detectors in place. 

The Senate gallery remained empty and the House gallery rarely had more than a few people. Committee meetings were virtual, and many employees continued working from home, leaving lawmakers to tune into hearings alone in their offices in a deserted maze. 

As Covid cases and hospitalizations fall and public health officials reverse safety provisions, the Capitol in 2023 will likely operate more like it did pre-pandemic. One thing that might be here to stay: the option for Oregonians to join committee hearings by video conference, which lawmakers noted has helped more people from around the state weigh in on bills. 

The Great Resignation

At least 20 current lawmakers are retiring or running for other offices, adding to the more than a dozen who left their legislative jobs mid-term. 

Most notably, Courtney is calling it quits after 20 years as leader of the chamber and 40 years in the Legislature. Senators used their speeches on Courtney’s final bill, to ban greyhound racing, to honor his long career in Salem. The bill passed. 

“The Oregon State Capitol is never going to be the same without Senate President Peter Courtney,” Brown said. “His leadership has been phenomenal, and we are all going to miss him.” 

What’s next?

While the legislative session over, legislative work isn’t done for the year. Lawmakers will continue working with constituents, start working on bills for next year and return for a week of informational committee meetings about once every two months. Many are also running for office.

The Senate will also return to vote on Brown’s appointments to various state boards and commissions. Courtney alluded to this continued work as he delayed making farewell speeches. 

Bynum, the Clackamas Democrat who voted against the budget, said she hoped to return in a special session to address a dearth of public defenders — the state is short around 1,300 public defenders, preventing some defendants from receiving the legal services they’re entitled to under the Constitution.

Lawmakers allocated $12.8 million, enough to hire 36 full-time public defenders, but Brown and others acknowledged it’s no more than a Band-Aid. Brown said she’s working with the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court this week to discuss ways that Oregon’s three law schools can help address the crisis.

However, she’s also worried that the Legislature, or at least its Emergency Board, will have to address drought and wildfire over the summer. The board, made up of Senate and House leaders, has a special fund it can use to appropriate money during the break between legislative sessions. 

“A good part of the state, primarily central Oregon, is in extreme drought, which is pretty scary, frankly, in March,” Brown said. “Unless we get significantly more snowfall over the next few weeks, it’s going to be really, really challenging, and so I look forward to working with Representative Breese-Iverson and others on an additional drought package should it be needed.” 

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.