Leaders assess success of the 2024 legislative session

The 2024 session of the Oregon Legislature, which ended last week a few days ahead of deadline, can be boiled down to this: Preparation plus pressure produced results.

“This was probably one of the most historic short sessions we have ever had,” Rep. Dan Rayfield, a Democrat from Corvallis who resigned as House speaker on the closing day March 7, said in a post-session gathering with reporters. “We tackled the things we said we were going to do.”

Rayfield is running for attorney general but will keep his House seat through the end of this year.

Though Democratic and Republican leaders disagreed on several points, all of them said both chambers succeeded in passing major legislation:

  • A $376 million package to jump-start housing production — though only by half as much as Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek had proposed — and continue the full amount of state aid she asked for shelter beds and other local and regional efforts to help unhoused people. (Senate bills 1530 and 1537; House Bill 4134)
  • A $211 million package to expand addiction treatment through insurance coverage, the Oregon Health Plan and jails — and reinstate criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of specified drugs, though with an option for treatment first in most Oregon counties. The penalties take effect in September. (House bills 4002 and 5204)
  • Oregon’s first legislator-approved regulation of campaign finances in 50 years, something even leaders were unsure would happen after years of failed attempts. (House Bill 4024)
  • Like a cherry atop a sundae, lawmakers added an estimated $400 million in the session-ending budget reconciliation measure for a variety of new spending. (Senate Bill 5701; some items may overlap with the other bills mentioned above.)

All the bills passed by big bipartisan majorities.

“This session shows that we were able to get some things accomplished by working together,” House Republican Leader Jeff Helfrich of Hood River said.

Early starts

For two of the three issues, legislators started work even before the end of the 2023 session and its record six-week walkout by 10 Republican and independent senators that thwarted business from being conducted in the Senate until 10 days before the adjournment deadline.

That session ended with the Senate’s rejection by a single vote of a House bill Kotek sought to allow cities to expand their urban growth boundaries for housing without the extensive justifications required under state land use laws. Almost all the objections came from Democrats — and Kotek’s staff went to work to negotiate a new version.

“There was a lot of intentionality to re-engage in authentic conversation … to set the table for what people felt was unfinished business,” Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, told reporters. “We did not wait a beat for people to start working.”

Kotek herself promoted her housing proposal several times: On Dec. 11 at the annual Oregon Business Summit; Jan. 9 on the anniversary of her swearing-in as governor, which was when she set an annual production target of 36,000 housing units; and in a detailed statement on Jan. 17 prior to a personal appearance before a Senate committee on Feb. 8.

Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene was elevated from majority leader to speaker on the final night of the 2024 session. She said legislators had internal discussions about campaign finance regulation during the 2023 session, but their efforts were put on the shelf after the walkout — and resumed later.

A recent survey conducted for the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center indicated 75% support for state regulation.

“By doing this, it helps a lot of Oregonians believe in our system,” said Helfrich, who, along with Fahey, took part in the talks that led to legislation. “This is something Oregonians have yearned for and we were able to get across the finish line.”

Addiction issue

The session’s other key issue arose last fall when critics called for repeal or other action to change Measure 110, the ballot initiative voters approved in 2020 to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of some drugs and substitute citations and $100 fines. The latter could be waived if people agreed to seek drug evaluations.

Democratic leaders rebuffed calls by Republicans and others to repeal the measure or refer a repeal to voters. But given a surge in overdoses of the synthetic opioid fentanyl — which began even before approval of Measure 110, during the coronavirus pandemic — they felt compelled to appoint a joint House-Senate committee.

Its dual mission was to look into expanding treatment options and consider reinstating criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA, known as Ecstasy.

“We knew it was going to be a giant package in terms of the things we had to do,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, a Democrat from Beaverton, a former prosecutor and the co-chair of the committee. “For those of us on the committee, it felt like a long session. But big packages like this take a lot of time.”

While the parties agreed on much of what became the 65-page House Bill 4002, the effort could have foundered on Democratic support for a Class C misdemeanor (maximum 30 days in jail, $1,250 fine) versus Republican support — backed by law enforcement and local governments — for a Class A misdemeanor (maximum one year in jail and $6,250 fine).

Partisan divide

Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend said that the 12 Republicans and one independent originally elected as a Republican were willing to go to the mat for their position on the drug crisis. He likened it to the 2023 walkout, which 10 of them took part in, to protest Democratic bills to safeguard access to abortion and ban firearms made with untraceable parts.

“We stood on principle and we paid the price — 10 of us did — and we would do it again,” Knopp said.

A few days before the 2024 session opened Feb. 5, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the absent lawmakers forfeited their chance to seek re-election under terms of a 2022 constitutional amendment that voters approved as Measure 113.

“Democrats had a different attitude coming into this session,” Knopp added. “It was all about trying to work together on housing and Measure 110 — and we did. This isn’t about party. It’s about people dying every day.”

Rayfield took issue with Knopp’s observation and said there was no deal between the parties to shelve bills on specific topics. Wagner did win legislative approval of a bill (SB 1503) to create a task force to consider linkages between firearms and suicide; two Republicans voted for it in the Senate, none in the House.

“We had accomplished those goals in the last session,” Rayfield said. “The issues this session were not walkout issues.”

Wagner said that unlike abortion or guns, housing and drug treatment did not lend themselves to sharp partisan divides. “There wasn’t a lot of elbowing around this time,” he said.

Dispute resolved

A coalition of law enforcement groups, backed by business interests, announced it would sponsor one or more ballot initiatives to change Measure 110 unless lawmakers acted. If voters passed an initiative doing so, lawmakers would find it almost impossible to change criminal penalties within it. (A 1994 constitutional amendment requires two-thirds majorities to change voter-approved sentences, such as those for violent crimes under Measure 11. Lawmakers have done so only a couple of times.)

But Rayfield said the final product recognized what most law enforcement professionals — from patrol to command levels — say is a reality: Jail is not the place for people to get access to treatment.

“Everybody agreed that treatment-first was the way to approach this,” he said. “There is not one path to recovery.”

Treatment and civil liberties advocates opposed reimposing any criminal penalties.

Knopp said he did not foresee the dispute would be resolved by declaring drug possession as an unclassified misdemeanor, with offenders having an opportunity for “deflection” into programs similar in concept to diversion for drunken-driving suspects.

“But we never walked away from the table,” he said. “We were always talking and negotiating. It is a good first step, but not the be-all, end-all.”

What’s next

Of Oregon’s 36 counties, 23 of them — representing about 85% of the state’s population — have agreed to deflection programs and a requirement that they report on who is participating to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. A racial impact statement advises lawmakers that reinstated criminal penalties for drug possession is likely to disproportionately affect people of color.

“This isn’t a one-and-done,” Wagner said. “The Legislature needs to be actively engaged in oversight and figure out how we partner with our local communities to continue to make strategic investments and also check in on the policy to make sure it is working.”

Fahey said half-jokingly that lawmakers could take “one weekend off” before starting work in advance of the 2025 session — and the 2024 elections that will determine who sits in the next Legislature.


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