Oregon lawmakers end session after OK for record spending
Oregon lawmakers adjourned their 2021 regular session Saturday, June 26, after approving record spending buoyed by federal funds and state tax collections that remained resilient despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Each of the 30 senators and 60 representatives got a slice of $240 million from the state's $2.6 billion share of federal funds under President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery law, known as the American Rescue Plan. Each senator got $4 million, and each representative $2 million, to allocate to a maximum of four projects or programs sponsored by state and local agencies and nonprofits.
The money was part of a record $5.5 billion budget reconciliation measure, known in past sessions as the "Christmas tree bill," because it often contained money for specific projects sponsored by selected legislators.
For a complete list, go to this link: olis.oregonlegislature.gov/liz/2021R1/Downloads/CommitteeMeetingDocument/246418
A Portland regional list will be attached to an updated version of this story on Sunday, June 27.
All that money will go out in the fall after reviews by state officials to ensure that proposed spending conform to federal guidelines in the American Rescue Plan. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said none of the requests appeared to be out of bounds, but legislators would be consulted if that was not the case.
Lawmakers wrapped up their work in 159 days, one day short of the 160-day limit that Oregon voters set when they approved annual legislative sessions in 2010. They are scheduled to meet again Sept. 20, after they receive federal census-block data that will enable them to redraw legislative and congressional district lines following the 2020 Census.
The 2022 session, which lasts a maximum of 35 days, will start in February.
All this followed three special sessions — and 13 meetings of the Emergency Board, the 20 lawmakers who decide budget issues between sessions — during 2020 and early 2021.
The Capitol will reopen to the public on July 12. It has been closed since March 18, 2020, at the onset of the pandemic. Lawmakers convened committee meetings online, including public testimony, but they voted on bills in person in their chambers.
Lawmakers approved a budget of more than $29 billion from the tax-supported general fund and Oregon Lottery proceeds, the most flexible sources for support of state services and public schools in the next two years. That's far more than the $25.6 billion that Democratic Gov. Kate Brown proposed back on Dec. 1, when the pandemic appeared to be worsening.
"These are not 'cut' budgets," Kotek told reporters after adjournment at 5:37 p.m. Saturday.
An infusion of $2.6 billion from Biden's plan, plus state tax collections that rebounded from huge projected losses only a year ago, helped avert cuts in most budgets. But budget writers have warned that about $6 billion in the two-year budget cycle that starts on Thursday, July 1, is one-time money.
Unlike in other states, Oregon lawmakers approve spending in a series of agency bills, rather than a single budget, and then pass a reconciliation measure at the end of the session.
Lawmakers approved a record $9.3 billion in the state school fund, but the Oregon School Boards Association and the Oregon Education Association said it should have been $9.6 billion. The fund will receive a projected $664 million in excess corporate income taxes; the exact figure will be known after the Sept. 22 revenue forecast. But that amount does not count against the base for the next budget cycle.
Lawmakers also approved $765 million for housing, $600 million for recovery from the 2020 Labor Day wildfires and prevention, and $470 million for mental health services.
"We have created some major expectations with this budget," Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat from Salem and the Legislature's longest serving member, told reporters. "I am very concerned about being able to deliver on that budget."
Brown said she was generally pleased with lawmakers' work.
"This session has marked a turning point for Oregon," she said in a statement afterward. "I am pleased that today, coming out of session, we are better positioned to address the key challenges facing Oregonians: the public health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfire recovery and preparedness, and taking steps to end systemic racism and address racial disparities in Oregon."
Democrats outnumber Republicans, 18 to 11 in the Senate — Republican Brian Boquist of Dallas became an independent — and 37 to 23 in the House. Republicans dipped to 22 in June.
What leaders said
Legislative leaders said it was a historic session in many ways.
"When I look at the full scope of what we've done this session to target aid to Oregonians who need it most, it honestly takes my breath away," Kotek, who has been in the House since 2007 and a record ninth year as its speaker, said in a statement.
"We prioritized pandemic relief, wildfire recovery, the housing crisis, improving our behavioral health system, and pushing for more equitable policing and a fairer criminal justice system. Taking on these ambitious goals amid a global pandemic required remarkable coordination and communication. I applaud the bipartisan effort that made the session successful.
"While more work lies ahead to help the many Oregonians who are still hurting, we can honestly look back and say that the work we did hear will make a meaningful difference for years to come."
Courtney is in his 33rd year in the Legislature, and a record 19th year as Senate president.
"Oregon has never had a session like this," he said. "The state was on fire. People were out of work. Families were struggling. We were in the middle of a pandemic… but we came in and did the people's work. We balanced our budget and made big investments in our communities. There were some bitter fights but in the end, we represented the people well."
House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby, in her second term, wasn't as upbeat but said there were some gains.
"I'm proud of the work we accomplished for our communities and for Oregonians across the state this session," she said in a statement. "From the start, we called for a focus on pandemic recovery, returning students to school and assistance to wildfire-impacted communities.
"As the legislative session progressed, it was clear transparency suffered as public policy was rushed through behind closed doors. This harmed communities, businesses and families. As the Oregon economy recovers, businesses reopen and students return to school, we must ensure the policy making process also returns to normal, which must include reopening Capitol to the voices of Oregonians."
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons, who has been in the Senate since 2008 and GOP leader for the past year, was a bit harsher.
"As much as we disagreed this session, Republicans and Democrats were still able to do some good things for Oregonians," he said in a statement. "We were able to make major investments in wildfire recovery. Bipartisan police reform was passed and Republicans were able to pass major bipartisan public safety reforms to protect vulnerable Oregonians…
"Unfortunately, Democrats advanced an extreme agenda that will continue to artificially depress Oregon's potential. Many critical issues were left ignored by the supermajority, like reforming the governor's emergency powers. It's now our job to educate Oregonians about these harmful policies and earn their trust to govern."
The session also was notable for an infamous reason: It resulted in the expulsion of a member on grounds of "disorderly behavior" for the first time in Oregon's 162 years of statehood. Republican Rep. Mike Nearman, a four-term member from a Mid-Willamette Valley district, was expelled June 10 on a 59-1 vote for his aiding of anti-lockdown protesters — some of them armed — in a breach of the closed Capitol during a Dec. 21 special session. He is under indictment in Marion County Circuit Court on two counts, both misdemeanors, for his actions.
Nearman was caught on Capitol surveillance video opening a Capitol door to allow entry by some protesters, who eventually were ejected by police. A second video, which surfaced the week before the expulsion vote, showed Nearman disclosing his cell phone number to potential protesters during a meeting and advising that "someone" might open a door if a text message was received.
Nearman, 57, a retired software engineer, is one of five candidates Republicans have put forth to fill the vacant District 23 seat. The Oregon Constitution bars the House from expelling him twice for the same offense. Commissioners from the district's four counties must choose a Republican to succeed him; if they do not within 30 days, Brown can choose any eligible Republican for the seat.
The House did schedule a vote on the recommended expulsion of Rep. Diego Hernandez, a three-term Democrat from East Portland who was found by a committee to have committed 18 violations of a legislative rule against creating a hostile work environment. But Hernandez resigned the day before the vote was to take place.
With the appointment to the District 47 seat of Andrea Valderrama, who had filed for a restraining order against Hernandez in 2020, the Oregon House had a majority of women for the first time in state history.
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