The Oregon legislature defied the peril of unscripted special sessions and approved a series of bills in a single day with bipartisan support that dealt with urban and rural concerns from rent relief to farm relief and from illegal cannabis operations to resettling Afghan refugees.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who made a gloomy prediction before the start of the special session, had nothing but praise afterward: “Oregonians can be proud of their legislators today. Democrat and Republican. We came together to send relief and hope to Oregonians in crisis.”
The four bills receiving legislative approval authorize $400 million in expenditures. More than half that amount will go to renter relief – $100 million for rent assistance, $100 million for landlords and $5 million to Oregon Housing and Community Services to speed up distribution of funds to distressed renters and unpaid landlords. The measure also contains further eviction protections.
The legislative champions of rental assistance, Senator Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, recommended a Secretary of State audit of the housing agency, including the performance of Allita 360 software blamed for checks with erroneous routing numbers that couldn’t be cashed. Former House Minority Leader and GOP gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan, R-Canby, went further and called for the firing of Margaret Salazar, director of the agency.
Some legislative Republicans questioned the $200 million expenditure, claiming it is a bandaid on a far larger problem of a lack of affordable housing stock. However, new Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, spoke in favor of the expenditure on the Senate floor: “Unemployed people don’t have the ability to pay rent, and so in order to protect them, and to protect landlords, the only option we have here today in this emergency session is to provide those funds.” Knopp also pointed to the June 30, 2022 deadline when eviction protections expire, which lawmakers enacted in a June special session.
The rental assistance bill passed the Senate 22-6 and the House 37-18. Several members were excused from the in-person legislative session.
Lawmakers also approved:
- $100 million to help farmers and ranchers cope with extended drought;
- $25 million to combat illegal marijuana operations that strain already over-extended water supplies and have provoked violence;
- $18.2 million to support state agencies assisting Afghan refugee resettlement;
- $14 million for affordable housing and homelessness prevention in Oregon’s 14 largest cities; and
- $2 million to address gun violence in east Multnomah County with a mix of outreach, mentorship and youth programs.
Funding for these expenditures comes from leftover federal stimulus money sent to Oregon under the American Rescue Plan last spring and state General Fund resources. Since the adjournment of the 2021 legislative session, state economists have projected an additional $1.5 billion in revenue above estimates in the 2021-2023 biennial budget.
Unemployed people don’t have the ability to pay rent, and so in order to protect them, and to protect landlords, the only option we have here today in this emergency session is to provide those funds.
The relatively smooth special session was a contrast to how the 2021 regular session ended with a partisan argument over congressional and legislative redistricting that led Drazan to file a censure motion against Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. The motion failed and Drazan later stepped down from her leadership post while announcing she would seek the 2022 GOP nomination for governor. Kotek is a declared candidate for the Democratic nomination.
It is possible Kotek, Drazan and Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who is running as an unaffiliated candidate, could be vying to succeed Governor Kate Brown in next fall’s general election. Kotek can tout her leadership in the special session, especially on renter assistance and gun violence, to overshadow recent criticism. Drazan showed again she knows how to earn a headline. Johnson, who had a relatively quiet special session, already laid down her marker by reporting $2 million in campaign donations. After the session ended, Johnson announced she will resign her Senate seat to devote her energy to her gubernatorial campaign.