Oregon lawmakers complete two priorities as session winds down

The Oregon Legislature will close its 2024 session by Sunday, March 10, after completing two major actions related to drugs and housing.

Both houses gave final legislative approval to House Bill 4002 and a companion $211 million spending bill by Friday, March 1. The bills go to Gov. Tina Kotek, who has not been explicit about her intentions.

She has largely left it to lawmakers to deal with a statewide response to a surge in fentanyl overdoses and a political backlash to the 2020 ballot measure that removed criminal penalties for possession of some drugs.

The House also approved two housing bills Monday, March 4.

Kotek had requested the bills to jump-start housing production and continue state aid to local and regional efforts to provide shelter beds and to avert homelessness.

The Senate has approved the bills, but supplied only about half the $500 million Kotek asked for to boost housing units toward the 36,000 annual goal she set in a 2023 executive order.

Senate bills 1530 and 1537 do grant the full $100 million Kotek requested for continued aid.

Other important bills were still making their way through the chambers on Monday, March 4, and the must-pass budget reconciliation measure had yet to emerge from the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

The session is limited to 35 days. Adjournment could come by mid-week, but more likely toward the end of the week.

Housing and homelessness

The centerpiece of the reworked housing package is a $75 million revolving loan fund that local governments and developers can tap for projects. Another $94 million will go to 44 specified public works projects by local governments that sponsors say could clear the way for 11,000 homes.

“If we want to build more housing, we’re going to need to invest in critical infrastructure projects to do so,” said Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, co-chair of a budget subcommittee that cleared the allocations. “This bipartisan proposal will accelerate desperately needed housing production in nearly every corner of Oregon — including our rural communities.”

The package also contains money for technical assistance and a new state office to help cities streamline permit processes, plus upgrades for some older homes.

“The governor has laid out an aggressive goal on housing production,” said Sen. Dick Anderson of Lincoln City, the top Republican on the Senate housing committee. “This suite of bills will help us begin chipping away at these production targets in my district and in communities across the state.”

It also includes $25 million earmarked for the Albina Vision Trust to purchase the Portland Public Schools headquarters on North Dixon Street for housing redevelopment, $3 million for the Center for Intercultural Organizing (Unite Oregon) to buy land for housing on East Burnside Street, and $1.25 million for the Center for African Immigrants and Refugees Organization for housing development on Southeast Stark Street.The Senate housing chairman is Sen. Kayse Jama, a Democrat from Portland who is originally from Somalia. He said afterward, “I’m really proud of the work we did to put forward smart solutions that will deliver urgent relief to Oregonians who need it.”

The package provides the full $100 million Kotek asked in state aid for local shelter beds and programs to avert homelessness, such as emergency rental assistance and eviction prevention. Some of the money will ensure that local and regional efforts can continue through the end of the state’s two-year budget cycle in mid-2025, despite a pending loss in federal funds by June 30.

The total now budgeted is $376 million from the tax-supported general fund, the most flexible account in the state budget.

The package contains a much-debated provision allowing a one-time expansion of urban growth boundaries of cities without the extensive justification required by state land use laws. A similar bill passed the House narrowly but fell one vote short in the Senate in the final days of the 2023 session — and most of the objections were from Democrats. But the Senate passed the new version, 21-7, with just two Democrats dissenting — James Manning Jr. and Floyd Prozanski, both of Eugene.

Under the new version, property owners must consent, cities of fewer than 25,000 people can expand by 50 acres, and cities with more people can expand by 100 acres. In the area covered by Metro, the regional government that covers urban parts of the three Portland area counties, the cap is 300 acres. Metro oversees the Portland area growth boundary. Cities must show that they have done comprehensive planning and permitting before expansion — and demonstrate the need for both housing and land.

Addiction and drug penalties

House Bill 4002 started the session with many Democrats and Republicans agreed on reversing part of a 2020 ballot initiative, which Oregon voters approved as Measure 110, that replaced criminal penalties for possession with citations and a $100 fine. The latter could be waived if someone agreed to a drug evaluation.

Oregon became the first in the nation to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of specified drugs other than marijuana. Neither Measure 110 nor the current bill affects the status of cannabis, which voters legalized for adult use in 2014.)

But few people sought treatment services, which providers said were stalled by the Oregon Health Authority until it redirected state proceeds from marijuana sales nearly two years later. The measure’s aftermath also coincided with a sharp state and national increase in use of and overdose deaths from fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate.

Democrats sought a Class C misdemeanor — maximum 30 days in jail, $1,250 fine — with an option for treatment. Republicans, backed by law enforcement and local governments, sought a Class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum one year in jail and a $6,250 fine.

The current 140-page bill would reimpose a criminal penalty (unspecified misdemeanor, with a maximum six months in jail) for possession of small amounts of cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. But there is no fine. The bill also eases barriers to insurance coverage of treatment, treatment by the regional coordinated-care organizations that serve more than 1 million low-income recipients under the Oregon Health Plan, and medication-assisted treatment in jails to help inmates break fentanyl addiction.

Possession offenders would be directed to “deflection” programs whose aims are similar to the existing diversion programs for drunken-driving suspects. The original bill made it mandatory, but after objections by local governments, it is now optional — although 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties have committed to such programs. Judges and prosecutors would have discretion over the programs.

Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, a Democrat from Beaverton, a former prosecutor and co-chair of the joint committee that devised HB 4002, said, “The Oregon Drug Intervention Plan is a treatment-focused approach that gives providers and law enforcement the tools they need to keep people safe and save lives.”

A separate bill allocates $211 million to carry out the new programs, including money for a long-discussed sobering and drop-off center in downtown Portland and the 4D Recovery program for youth outpatient and residential treatment in Northeast Portland.

“The ability to make this an unclassified misdemeanor has given us the flexibility to be clear about our intent — treatment and recovery,” said Rep. Jason Kropf, a Democrat from Bend, a former prosecutor and House co-chair of the joint committee. “We have heard from law enforcement repeatedly that they want the tools to be able to intervene and confiscate drugs in their community — but they do not want to take people to jail. We are providing the framework to make that a reality.”

Republicans said they would have liked to have gone further, such as instituting involuntary commitment for drug treatment. They said HB 4002 is only a starting point.

Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp of Bend said in a statement after the Senate gave final approval: “Though lawmakers will have much more to do in future sessions to continue making progress on the fentanyl-fueled drug overdose and addiction crisis facing our state, I was proud to stand on the right side of history by casting my vote in favor for HB 4002.”

A coalition of law enforcement and business groups had promised to seek one or more ballot initiatives for the Nov. 5 general election to undo part of the 2020 ballot measure. But the revised bill won support from the League of Oregon Cities, Association of Oregon Counties, Oregon State Sheriffs Association, Oregon District Attorneys Association and Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs — and the coalition announced it would drop its petition efforts if the bills become law.

If voters had approved such a ballot measure, the Oregon Constitution requires two-thirds majorities in the Legislature to change criminal penalties, such as those mandated for violent crimes under 1994’s Measure 11. Lawmakers have done so only a couple of times.

But treatment advocates and other supporters of Measure 110, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, opposed the renewed criminal penalties. They said it was a reversion to the enforcement-first, treatment-last policies of the national war-on-drugs era that began more than 50 years ago under President Richard Nixon — and that people of color would continue to be disproportionately affected by more arrests and fewer opportunities to obtain treatment.


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