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Entering the final month of the 2021 session, lawmakers are addressing major bills dealing with transportation, school funding and behavioral health. Meanwhile, Capitol aides took steps last week to become the first legislative staffers in the nation to unionize and the National Guard was called in to buttress staffing at Oregon State Hospital.

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Transportation. The Joint Transportation Committee passed out House Bill 3055, an omnibus bill that increases the Oregon Department of Transportation’s short-term borrowing authority from $100 million to $600 million. The committee inserted several provisions from Speaker Tina Kotek’s transportation bill (House Bill 3065), including spending flexibility for the Interstate 5 Rose Quarter expansion project, I-205 widening and I-5 Boone Bridge seismic upgrades in Wilsonville. The amended version of the omnibus bill also directs ODOT to keep working on highway tolling on Portland-area freeways.

Kotek expressed displeasure at the turn of events. She said her bill enjoyed the support of Metro and the City of Portland and was intended to create a “more equitable and emission-reducing” framework for projects. The Speaker said it was “irresponsible” not to consider the impact of congestion pricing on the design of future highway projects. Environmental and transit advocates also voiced concerns.

The controversy swirling around Kotek’s original legislation and her succession amendments may not be finished. Even though Committee Co-chair Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, described the amendment adding some of Kotek’s provisions to the omnibus bill as “vanilla”, Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, worried aloud that the amendment still is controversial and could weigh down the omnibus bill as it heads to the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

The omnibus bill includes a long list of technical fixes to ODOT statutes, extends the sunset clause on aviation fuel taxes, delegates speed limit authority to some counties, adds training requirements for motor carriers and updates federal odometer check requirements. 

School Funding. The Senate approved a $9.3 billion budget for K-12 schools, an increase of $300 million over the current service level. Even though the budget is higher than proposed by Governor Brown, it is $300 million lower than what school officials and teachers say is needed. The K-12 budget, the largest single line item in the state’s budget, now goes to the House. This is the fourth consecutive biennium K-12 schools have received enlarged spending.

Behavioral Health. The co-chairs of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services presented a $521 million plan to address deficiencies within the state’s mental and behavioral health continuum of care, including individuals suffering because they are stuck with inappropriate levels of care.

Vietnam War Memorial. Senate Bill 319 would formally set aside a portion of the Oregon Capitol grounds for a Vietnam War Memorial featuring granite columns bearing the names of Oregonians killed in the conflict.

Senator Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, and Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, described a lack of timely access to crisis care, housing and residential care contribute to a crisis in Oregon’s hospital systems. Many patients need lower levels of care, but there are insufficient community resources for referrals. The Lawmakers blamed silos within the health care system, lack of accountability and lack of coordination.

Their solution is a laundry list of investments and legislative measures to transform Oregon’s behavioral health system. They propose $100 million to boost the workforce and give the system more capacity and flexibility. Another $231 million would finance a Regional Development and Innovation Fund, open two Junction City Hospital units and create housing incentives. The remaining $190 million would go toward priority projects, four new peer respite centers, a statewide 988 crisis line, mobile crisis support and funding for the substance abuse disorder task force.

To add weight to the recommendations, Patrick Allen, who heads the Oregon Health Authority, called on the National Guard to assist at the understaffed Oregon State Hospital. Staffing shortages have resulted from an outbreak of COVID-19 cases and staffers on leave because they lost their childcare. Thirty patients and 120 staff members tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the outbreak.

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Staff Union. By a vote of 75-31, legislative staff voted to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89. Staff leaders said legislative aides want more, consistent say in workplace issues. Legislative leaders challenged 30 votes of staffers who hold supervisory positions or have confidential duties. The bargaining unit will be the nation’s first for legislative staffers.

Lane Splitting. Governor Brown issued her first veto of the 2021 session by rejecting legislation permitting motorcyclists to drive between lanes when traffic slows because of congestion. Senate Bill 574 would have permitted motorcyclists to drive up to 50 mph when auto traffic crawled at 10 mph or slower. Brown cited safety concerns and noncompliance when traffic speeds exceed 10 mph. Legislative proponents said the bill language was a compromise from what’s legal lane-splitting in California.

Oregon Elections. Oregonians could mail their ballots as late as election day if House Bill 3291, which passed out of the House last week, makes it through the Senate. Under current voting procedures, all Oregon mail-in ballots must be received by 8 pm on election day. Under HB 3291, ballots would be valid and counted if they were postmarked by election day, an allowance made in other states including Washington and California.

Civics Education: The Oregon House unanimously passed Senate Bill 513A that requires a half-credit of civics education to graduate from high school. Oregon is one of only a handful of states with no civics education requirement. “This bill is not a panacea,” said Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, “but it is the foundation for a shared vocabulary. It will open the door to a larger, more strategic investment in lifelong public service experiences and community-based opportunities for learning how to improve a neighborhood, a school, a community and a nation.” The measure now goes to the governor’s desk. 

Civics education is the foundation for a shared vocabulary that can open the door to a larger, more strategic investment in lifelong public service experiences and community-based opportunities for learning how to improve a neighborhood, a school, a community and a nation.

Vaping Limits. House Bill 2261, which bans online sales of nicotine vaping devices, cleared the Senate and now will go to Governor Brown’s desk for signature. Oregon already bans online sales of cigarettes. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum applauded passage of the legislation, saying it will help stem the rate of teenage vaping, which has increased while cigarette use has declined.

Athlete Compensation. Senate Bill 5 has been sent to the Senate floor to permit Oregon college athletes to receive compensation for their name, image and likeness and to retain professional representation or an agent, effective July 1 this year. The staff analysis for the measure says, “Allows student athlete to receive food, drink, lodging or medical expenses or insurance coverage from third-party as compensation.” The chief sponsor of the bill is Senate President Peter Courtney.

Bias Crimes in State Parks. The House will vote this week on Senate Bill 289, introduced at the governor’s request, to bar people convicted of bias crimes from using state parks or waterways for up to five years. There have been recent hate-related offenses that underscored the need for the legislation. The bill received bipartisan support in coming out of the House Judiciary Committee.