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Halfway through Oregon’s session, here’s where bills on five hot-button issues stand

Oregon’s fast-moving legislative session is roughly half over, and there are plenty of dead bills to prove it.

Monday marked the first major deadline that legislation needs to clear in order to have a chance to pass this year: In most cases, bills that weren’t voted out of their first committee are considered dead.

Sen. Jeff Gordon, Feb. 5, 2024, right, on the opening of the legislative short session at the Oregon state Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Sen. Jeff Gordon, Feb. 5, 2024, right, on the opening of the legislative short session at the Oregon state Capitol in Salem, Ore.

Jordan Gale / Pool

Meanwhile, the Legislature is still working out changes to pressing and consequential bills that tackle the state’s housing and addiction crises. And there is hope in the Capitol that lawmakers will finally act to create limits on campaign contributions.

Here’s a rundown of a few notable ideas that won’t move forward, alongside a few that are being hastily hashed out as lawmakers rush toward a March 10 adjournment.

DEAD: Stronger greenhouse gas reduction goals

State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, has spent much of his decade in the Legislature attempting to tackle climate change — including with two “cap and trade” proposals that aimed to force polluters to reduce their emissions. Those bills were defeated repeatedly.

This year marks Dembrow’s last session, and he had a more modest aim. He wanted to bolster the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in coming years.

Under Oregon law, the official goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 75% from 1990 levels by 2050. Dembrow’s Senate Bill 1559 would have kicked up that goal to 95%, a change recommended by the state’s Climate Action Commission.

“I believe most of us would agree that this is something that the Legislature should take action on,” Dembrow said in a hearing last week. “However we once again find ourselves at an impasse as a result of quibbling over language and the meaning of the word ‘goal.’”

Dembrow argued his bill was largely toothless, stating an aspiration by the state but not creating any accountability if Oregon failed. But Republicans were wary enough that, according to the lawmaker, they asked Democrats to kill the bill.

“This bill is apparently so distasteful to Republican colleagues that it’s being placed on the ‘bad bill’ list, those deemed most partisan and controversial with the potential to, as we put it here, blow things up,” Dembrow testified.

One Republican objected. State Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, interrupted Dembrow to say he was not aware of any ‘bad bill’ list.

DEAD: Blocking teachers from striking

When a teachers strike at Portland Public Schools kept some 45,000 children at home for 11 instructional days in November, it seemed everyone had an idea for how to address longstanding questions around school funding in the state.

A group of nine Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, had a separate response. With House Bill 4057, they proposed adding teachers to the list of public employees prohibited from striking.

“Portland Public Schools are the gold standard for how not to run a school district despite record investments from the state,” state Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson, one of the lawmakers who introduced the bill, said in a statement in November. “It is time they be held accountable.”

The bill was always a longshot in a Legislature controlled by labor-friendly Democrats. It did not receive a hearing and is now dead.

Lawmakers have vowed to take action to address school funding issues that helped fuel the Portland strike — and have now led the district to announce $30 million in cuts. But any major changes won’t occur until next year’s session, when the Legislature will pass a new two-year budget.

IN TROUBLE: Money for wildfire prevention

Some Democratic lawmakers came into this year’s session determined to force a conversation on sustainably funding wildfire prevention, a problem that is only growing more serious as the climate changes.

They have so far failed.

State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, faced blowback after proposing a constitutional change that might have allowed the state to increase property taxes to pay for fighting and preventing fires. House Joint Resolution 201 would have asked voters to approve the change in November.

But Evans announced on the House floor last week that the proposal is “probably not moving forward this session” after more than 1,200 pieces of testimony were filed in opposition.

“Everyone seems to be agreed that something needs to be done, but everybody wants something else as a solution,” Evans said. “Without a solution, the consequences are on all of us. We took an oath to defend this people and place and I don’t know what else to do other than push as hard as I can… Doing nothing is not an appropriate answer.”

Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has proposed raising money by taxing owners of large swaths of forestland who benefit from the state’s prevention efforts. Golden’s Senate Bill 1593 would ask voters to approve the change, which the lawmaker says would raise between $75 million and $110 million a year.

“As wildfire critically affects more and more of the state, more and more Oregonians are turning to the question of where resources should come from and how they should be spent,” a document Golden has circulated about his proposal reads. “Placing the measure on the November 2024 ballot lets them weigh in on the impacts and direction of Oregon’s wildfire policy.”

Golden’s bill has an uncertain path forward. It is in the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, so not subject to normal deadlines, but a public hearing on the proposal scheduled for Tuesday was canceled.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Criminal penalties for drug possession

Both Democrats and Republicans came to Salem this year ready to end the state’s three-year experiment in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. But finding agreement on how to do that has proven politically difficult.

Democrats’ initial proposal for making possession a low-level misdemeanor, introduced in House Bill 4002, was panned by Republicans and a wide-range of interest groups as too soft. Those entities have instead pressed for possession to be a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Advocates for drug decriminalization have fought back, tearing into lawmakers for proposing a policy they say will harm communities of color, overburden an already troubled justice system and not address the state’s addiction crisis.

The result? Things have gotten quiet.

After rolling out HB 4002, their main proposal for tackling the addiction crisis, in the first week of session, Democrats behind the bill have gone largely dark. The special committee considering the bill did not meet all of last week, and is currently not scheduled to meet this week either.

People involved in discussions say lawmakers are working up a proposal that could improve HB 4002′s chances of passing. That approach likely involves Democrats meeting Republicans halfway, creating a new misdemeanor for drug possession that allows for up to six months in jail, but offers users multiple opportunities to avoid charges by accepting treatment.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Campaign contribution limits

Campaign finance was not on anyone’s bingo card heading into this year’s session. Creating new limits on how much candidates and campaigns can accept from donors has been a political nonstarter for years, and there was no reason to expect lawmakers could find accord this time around.

But that might be changing. Worried over a set of strict limits that voters could have the chance to implement in November, major business groups and large labor unions have been hashing out a system of regulations they will try to rush through this year. They’ve got tentative support from Republican and Democratic leaders, who are similarly interested in avoiding a ballot fight.

Business and labor groups have been working hard to craft a proposal for lawmakers to consider, and expect to have a draft bill in hand sometime this week. A hearing is slated for Friday in the House Rules Committee.

Even if lawmakers do somehow find the will to act this year, however, voters might still have the option of enacting stronger limits at the ballot.

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