It's no secret Oregon faced a challenging year. And, according to Oregon Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, the taxing year was accompanied by a legislative session with a "bold agenda."
"I'm pretty proud of the work we were able to do," said the Lake Oswego representative after the session ended June 26.
With bills that addressed everything from COVID-19 relief to health care, housing and racial equity, the legislative agenda included a comprehensive list of issues that severely impacted the state during a year of social unrest and natural disasters.
House Rep. Andrea Salinas, who represents the 38th District covering most of Lake Oswego and parts of Southwest Portland, said the challenges heading into the legislative session felt "insurmountable."
Especially with the insurrection at the Oregon Capitol building last year, Salinas said there was a negative feeling heading into the session this past February.
"Coming out of it and getting a little perspective, especially toward the end ... it was unprecedented," Salinas said. "I was completely surprised at how much we were able to accomplish and how much we were able to deliver for Oregonians."
Both Salinas and Wagner noted that work was completed in a bipartisan fashion this year as people worked together through challenges that plagued all areas of society.
Salinas personally introduced 15 pieces of legislation and prioritized a few other bills presented by different legislators, though not all passed into law. Successful bills Salinas expressed excitement about included House Bill 2362 — which would address the cost of hospital consolidation to prevent costs from hurting consumers, while still remaining accessible — and House Bill 2359, which would require health care providers to use interpreters for patients with limited English proficiency or for those who are hard of hearing.
Salinas said this bill could help providers reach a wider population of people as far as getting the word out about topics like vaccinations.
"Our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community, really ... were harder hit with the pandemic itself and I think word about vaccinations (has) not been getting out in an equitable manner," Salinas said.
She was also glad to see House Bill 2010 pass. This bill would direct the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Consumer and Business Services to craft a plan for a public option health insurance plan in an effort to improve access to affordable care.
Salinas said she supported and passed some large investments in behavioral health care.
"We invested, I think it was about $100 million to help BIPOC providers to essentially continue with their graduate degrees and their studies so we can have additional behavioral and mental health care providers, which are culturally and linguistically responsive," Salinas said.
Wagner said some bills that stood out to him related to wildfires and climate change.
Senate Bill 762 will dive into strategies to support wildfire response and recovery.
"(It was) pretty landmark for Oregon to step up in the way we did," Wagner said. "It's going to take a while to be on the frontline truly on that effort."
Wagner also highlighted a clean energy bill that passed during this session. House Bill 2021 will require retail electricity providers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 100% below baseline emission levels by 2040.
Wagner said he was also proud of the bipartisan work on housing during the session. There will be "big investments" Wagner said. "Oregon was really doing a lot more than other states to step up and provide grace periods for repayment (of rent)."
While there were many successes, there were a handful of bills Salinas supported that didn't pass.
Two of those, Salinas noted, related to farm workers and the immigrant community.
Salinas said she felt like House Bill 2358 A — which would have made farm workers eligible for overtime pay — had good momentum, but it was ultimately left in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.
Another bill regarding universal legal representation for immigration or deportation matters fell short as well.
"You don't necessarily have a representative," Salinas said of those who appear at deportation hearings. "We are trying to figure out how we move from the model we have now that only pays for some cases and not all cases, to a model that's more community-based."
The bill would have also provided services for family members who could be left behind.
"That was also a huge bummer. We got that one through the judiciary committee and it got through really late," Salinas said. "I feel like the Ways and Means Committee didn't quite understand what it did."
Wagner said there's always bills that don't gain consideration or don't make it as far as you'd like.
Both Wagner and Salinas expressed excitement around having the opportunity to allocate a portion of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden this past March. This act allocated $1.9 trillion in relief funds to help states suffering negative economic and health impacts as a result of the pandemic.
Oregon received about $2.6 billion, with $2 million given to every House representative and $4 million to every senator to allocate in their respective districts.
While ARPA had regulations on where the money could be spent, both Salinas and Wagner decided to allocate funds within a handful of broad categories: racial equity work, health care, affordable housing and trails.
"It was the first time we ever had the opportunity to reach out to our communities to talk about strategic investments at a really local level," said Wagner, adding that he's really proud of the investment into an affordable housing project in Lake Oswego.
Steve Messinetti, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity in the Portland region, said the funds for the housing project in Lake Oswego would go toward purchasing a property at Boones Ferry Road and Upper Drive that could support 23 affordable townhomes.
Salinas and Wagner also allocated funds to local nonprofits like Lake Oswego's Respond to Racism.
"The fact that they'll get some seed money to really work on infrastructure and building their capacity is important as well," said Salinas, adding that they don't usually get to go into the weeds like that on a local level. "So all that felt really fun and it did feel really bipartisan as well."
Wagner said after local communities suffered through so many recent challenges, it's encouraging to see the state prioritizing peoples' needs.
"I think it's encouraging to see people be able to make strategic investments and be able to address the challenges," he said.
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