Image for Huge Spending, Wildfire and Clean Energy Bills Mark Session’s End

Lawmakers approved millions of dollars for a vast array of projects in every House and Senate district, funded an omnibus wildfire measure and set ambitious clean energy and recycling policies before adjourning Saturday amid an unprecedented statewide heat wave. Governor Brown announced an end to all COVID-19 restrictions in Oregon effective June 30, even though the vaccination rate is just short of the 70 percent goal she set. Oregon’s minimum wage ticks up to $14 per hour July 1.

With stronger than expected state revenue and $2.6 billion from the federal American Rescue Plan, lawmakers drafted three spending and bonding bills (House Bill 5006, Senate Bill 5506 and Senate Bill 5534) that fund water and wastewater projects, an overhaul of 82nd Avenue in Portland, expanded broadband access, university building renovation, upgrades to state parks, a new state liquor distribution warehouse, armory improvements and capital investments in state buildings and facilities. Budget-writers had enough revenue on hand to reserve $1 billion for future use.

HB 5006 contains what one lawmaker called a mindboggling long and varied list of local projects such as $1.4 million for a children’s psychiatric program in Boardman, $1.9 million for the Sheridan School District’s career technical education center, $1 million for the Kam Wah Chung Interpretive Center in John Day, $1.6 million for a Habitat for Humanity housing project in Redmond and $520,000 for the Oregon Humane Society’s animal crime forensic center. Fire districts in Jackson County, Clackamas County and Eugene/Springfield each received $2 million to train firefighters.

SB 5534 allocates $445 million from Oregon Lottery funds for 55 projects including $20 million for a behavioral health housing incentive fund, $10 million to help cities spruce up downtowns, $10 million to replenish a fund used to clean up brownfields and $68 million for water and irrigation projects. Varying amounts will go to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Willamette Falls, OMSI, Portland Art Museum, Woodburn Community Center and several YMCAs. The Oregonian provided a detailed summary of projects in the three spending bills. You can find actual bill language by clicking on SB 5534 (lottery funding), SB 5006-2 (capital construction)  and SB 5006-1 (Christmas Tree).

The omnibus wildfire measure (Senate Bill 762) continued to ignite sparks until a compromise was approved Thursday night that replaced a controversial definition of “wildland-urban interface” with a directive to the State Board of Forestry to develop a rule by this fall. Critics said the definition was confusing and could impose burdensome restrictions on rural landowners seeking to rebuild after wildfires, leading Senate Minority leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, to call SB 762 “the worst bill of the session”. Democrats disagreed, pointing to the year-long process that crafted the legislation, including the definition. SB 762 also provides $195 million for wildfire prevention, preparedness and response.

House Bill 2021, the flagship environmental bill of the 2021 session, prohibits any new gas-fired power plants in Oregon and requires PGE and PacifiCorp to transition away from fossil fuels by 2040. Social justice and renewable energy advocates say HB 2021 would set the most aggressive clean energy standard in the nation.

More Oregonians will have access to curbside recycling under provisions of Senate Bill 582. The measure also clarifies what can be recycled to reduce contamination and hold down the cost of recycling. Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, says SB 582 “assures we all share in incentives to reduce the amount of materials we throw away and that recycling really works as we all expect it should.”

Lawmakers agreed to forego state income taxes for all Oregon businesses and self-employed individuals that received forgivable loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Congress also made the loans tax-free and allow businesses to deduct loan amounts on their tax returns. The loans were intended to keep employees on payrolls during the pandemic lockdown. The revenue loss for the Oregon business tax break is estimated at between $450 and $600 million. In separate legislation, lawmakers limited a $2.4 billion tax increase on businesses to compensate for higher unemployment benefit outlays during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Oregon individual taxpayers won’t get refunds on $300 million in personal income tax revenue generated by their receipt of federal stimulus payments. Lawmakers also rejected a proposal from labor unions to give $450 million in state stimulus payments to essential workers for their efforts during the pandemic. After the bill was reported dead, Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) released a statement indicating the issue would be one of her top priorities in the upcoming short legislative session in February. The legislature did pass a bill letting Oregonians off the hook if the state inadvertently overpaid their jobless benefits.

State funding for the Oregon Health Plan, Oregon’s Medicaid program grew by 50 percent from previous budgets and includes $100 million to cover people eligible for Medicaid who otherwise would be denied due to their immigration status. Other legislation passed to create an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement and expand a tax credit for working non-citizen parents of US citizen children.

House Bill 2992 seeks to increase racial and economic diversity on the 250 or so state boards and commissions by raising the per diem paid to people with modest incomes. Lawmakers also required regulation of the sale of kratom and mandated public schools provide free feminine hygiene products. To the dismay of some advocates, lawmakers failed to impose political campaign contribution limits and adopt even more racial and social justice measures, including mandating overtime pay for farmworkers.

A post-session worry expressed by Senate President Peter Courtney is whether state and local governments will be able to spend all the money the legislature appropriated for a wide range of capital projects. 

A special session will start September 20 to consider a redistricting plan, which will coincide with Legislative Days when interim committees meet. The 35-day, even-year legislative session will convene February 1, 2022 and is expected to be conducted in person. The Oregon Capitol reopens to the public July 12, though some areas may be off limits because of major remodeling.

A post-session worry is whether state and local governments will be able to spend all the money the legislature appropriated for a wide range of capital projects.

An odd political twist could occur. Mike Nearman, who was expelled as a House member because of his role in coaching and assisting protesters gain access to a closed Capitol during a special session last December, is seeking to be reappointed to his legislative seat. His name appears to be on the list of potential appointees.

The higher minimum wage increase is the sixth of seven increases approved by the legislature in 2016. The wage rate is lower in rural areas at $12 per hour and $12.75 in coastal and small urban counties. Oregon’s $14 per hour minimum wage trails only Washington, DC at $15 per hour and outstrips rates in Washington $13.69, Massachusetts $13.50 and California $13. Oregon’s urban minimum wage will rise again in 2022 to $14.75 per hour. According to reporting by The Oregonian’s Mike Rogoway, the number of Oregon workers paid at the minimum wage has declined, with 123,000 paid at that during 2020.