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News / Northwest

Drugs, housing and education among the major bills of Oregon’s whirlwind 35-day legislative session

By CLAIRE RUSH, Associated Press
Published: March 8, 2024, 10:32am
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FILE - A list of legislative bill numbers is seen as the Oregon House meets on the first day of the legislative session at the Oregon state Capitol, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Salem, Ore. Oregon&#039;s whirlwind 35-day legislative session ended Thursday night, a couple days ahead of schedule. This year lawmakers focused on housing and drugs as the two main priorities.
FILE - A list of legislative bill numbers is seen as the Oregon House meets on the first day of the legislative session at the Oregon state Capitol, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024, in Salem, Ore. Oregon's whirlwind 35-day legislative session ended Thursday night, a couple days ahead of schedule. This year lawmakers focused on housing and drugs as the two main priorities. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File) Photo Gallery

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — During a 35-day whirlwind legislative session that adjourned Thursday night, a couple days ahead of schedule, Oregon lawmakers focused on two main priorities: housing and drugs.

Their decision to recriminalize drug possession made national headlines, and a sweeping $370 million package aimed at boosting housing production capped off months of negotiations. Measures spanning other issues, from education to the environment, also passed. Here’s a look at the major bills approved this session:

DRUG RECRIMINALIZATION

Oregon legislators voted to roll back the state’s first-in-the-nation drug decriminalization law — passed by voters in 2020 — by once again making it a crime to possess small amounts of drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine.

The fentanyl crisis, one of the nation’s largest increases in overdose deaths, as well as growing political pressure pushed many Democrats who historically supported the decriminalization measure to vote for the new bill, which passed with bipartisan backing.

Social justice groups opposed it based on the belief that treatment is more effective than jail in helping people overcome addiction. They also expressed concern it will result in more arrests.

So-called personal use possession is now a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. The measure enables police to crack down on drug use in public areas such as parks and aims to make it easier to prosecute people who sell drugs.

The bill also establishes ways for treatment to be offered as an alternative to criminal penalties. But it only “encourages,” rather than mandates, law enforcement agencies to create deflection programs that would divert people to addiction and mental health services instead of the criminal justice system. So far, 23 of Oregon’s 36 counties, in letters to lawmakers, have committed to creating such programs.

While the part of the package recriminalizing possession garnered the most attention, the bill also contained a series of other measures, including those aimed at increasing the behavioral health workforce and expanding access to medication used to treat opioid addiction, including in jails. The accompanying budget bill also contained roughly $85 million to fund the construction and expansion of treatment facilities.

Democratic Gov. Tina Kotek said she intends to sign the bill.

HOUSING PRODUCTION

The sole bill introduced by Kotek during this year’s short legislative session was a sweeping housing measure aimed at jumpstarting home construction.

Among the many things the bill did was tweak Oregon’s unique land use law, a sacred cow of the state’s liberal politics. Passed in the 1970s, the law placed boundaries on cities in a bid to prevent suburban sprawl and protect farmland and forests.

The new bill grants cities a one-time exemption to the decades-old rule by allowing them to acquire new land for the purpose of building housing.

It requires 30% of new units in expansion areas to be affordable. For a period of at least 60 years, rentals must be affordable to households that earn 80% or less of the area median income, and homes for sale must be affordable to those who earn 130% or less of the area median income.

The bill also allows cities to “swap” land currently within their boundaries that is harder to develop because of steep terrain or other topographical issues with an equivalent amount of land just outside that is more suitable for residential use.

The broader housing package directs more than $370 million toward infrastructure projects that help support housing production, such as the installation or expansion of water and sewer systems. It also includes money for homeless shelters and eviction prevention in a bid to help people stay housed.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM

Lawmakers passed a campaign finance reform bill that limits the amount of money people and political parties can contribute to candidates, following recent elections that saw wealthy donors inject millions into key state races.

Oregon is currently one of roughly a dozen states that has no limits on campaign contributions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Under the bill, starting in 2027, individuals and corporations can only give up to $3,300 to a statewide candidate per election cycle, while political party committees can give up to $30,000. So-called “membership organizations,” such as labor unions and nonprofit advocacy groups, can contribute a total of $26,400 to a statewide candidate per cycle.

Limits would be lower for non-statewide candidates running in legislative, district attorney or circuit court judge races.

To promote transparency, the bill also directs the secretary of state, starting in 2028, to create an online dashboard that lists the 100 largest contributors to candidates or campaign committees and shows how much money industry groups donate to candidates.

Kotek’s office said she supports the legislation.

EDUCATION, ENVIRONMENT, RIGHT TO REPAIR

Another priority of Kotek’s that lawmakers passed was a $30 million bill to expand summer learning programs for K-12 students.

The measure seeks to make up for learning losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. It prioritizes funding for programs that serve disadvantaged students, such as those with disabilities or from low-income families.

Lawmakers also passed a key environmental bill that establishes how the state will spend and manage the nearly $700 million it received in a historic legal settlement over pollution associated with products made by agriculture giant Monsanto.

The 2022 settlement with Bayer, the German biotechnology and pharmaceutical company that now owns Monsanto, was the largest environmental damage recovery in Oregon’s history. Bayer said the agreement contained no admission of liability or wrongdoing and resolved all of Oregon’s claims.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were used in many industrial and commercial applications — including paint, coolants, sealants and hydraulic fluids — until they were banned by Congress in the late 1970s. PCBs associated with Monsanto products still contaminate Oregon’s landfills and riverbeds and show up in fish and wildlife. The chemical compounds have been found to cause cancer in animals and are probable carcinogens for humans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The money from the settlement will be deposited into a new fund. It will go toward environmental remediation projects and disproportionately impacted communities in order to tackle water, land and air pollution.

Another bill touted by supporters for its environmental impact was a so-called “right to repair” measure. It requires manufacturers of consumer electronic equipment to provide the information and replacement parts needed for people to repair their own devices and appliances. Backers say it will help reduce electronic waste and make repairs more affordable for consumers.

Kotek has yet to signal an intent to veto any of the bills. Under Oregon law, the governor has five days to veto a bill after receiving it if the Legislature is still in session. If the Legislature adjourns before those five days elapse, or if the governor receives it after the session has ended, they have 30 days to veto it.

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