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The 2021 legislative session is beginning to pick up steam as lawmakers consider election changes, a foreclosure moratorium, prevailing wage re-calculation and the fate of a House member charged with sexual harassment. Legislative budget writers, who face a $1.7 billion budget deficit, are holding their breath as Congress fleshes out details in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which could give the State of Oregon at least $500 million in federal funding.

This week will get off to a slow start because of the winter storm, which has left pockets in Salem without electrical power.

While some other states seek to make vote-by-mail harder, bills have been proposed in Oregon to make it more convenient. House Rules heard testimony last week on a pair of bills (House Bills 2226 and 2687) to allow votes to count if they are postmarked on election day and arrive within seven days after election day. Currently, only ballots turned in by 8 pm on election day are considered valid. One of the bills also would permit third-party collection of ballots on election day, which is intended to give voters with mobility issues an option to turn in ballots on election day.

Separate legislation (House Joint Resolution 11), which also was heard in House Rules, would ask Oregon voters to approve a constitutional amendment allowing election-day voter registration by eliminating the 20-day deadline imposed in 1986 to blunt an attempted Rajneeshee takeover of Wasco County’s government. Oregon permitted election-day voter registration from 1977 until 1985. There also is a push to expand automatic voter registration via other state documentation than standard driver’s licenses.

During the third special session last year, lawmakers extended the renter eviction moratorium until June this year, but they didn’t extend a parallel moratorium on foreclosures until September. Democrats are trying to remedy that omission in House Bill 2009, claiming homeowners who may have lost jobs because of economic lockdowns remain vulnerable during the pandemic, despite a patchwork of federal protections. Opposition by financial institutions dashed any hope for a foreclosure moratorium extension in the special session and is expected to continue in the 2021 session.

A new report touts the benefits of requiring prevailing wages for public works projects and encourages lawmakers to make Oregon’s prevailing wage requirements stronger and on par with Washington’s. The report authors suggest pegging prevailing wage rates to negotiated contracts as opposed to regional wage surveys. According to the report, prevailing wage requirements don’t raise project costs, attract more competitive bids, lead to more career advancement and result in higher construction worker incomes. The report also says prevailing wages help in-state firms compete against large, out-of-state construction companies.

The session is on track to consider a whopping 4,000 bills, which could strain the limited digital airtime of a virtual legislative session. Legislative leaders have signaled their priority this session will be on bills addressing homelessness, affordable housing and racial justice.

House Bill 2419 and Senate Bill 493, which received hearings last week, would follow the recommendation of the labor report, replacing wage surveys in 14 state regions with wage rates based on collective bargaining agreements. One estimate placed the annual cost increase for local governments with projects subject to prevailing wage rates at $100 million.

The full House is scheduled this week to consider House Resolution 1 to expel Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, for harassment and creating a hostile work environment. It would take a two-thirds majority of the House to expel Hernandez. Last Friday, an attorney representing Hernandez filled a lawsuit in Marion County Circuit Court seeking an injunction to block the expulsion vote and $1 million in damages. Word around the Capitol indicated House Speaker Tina Kotek may delay consideration of HR 1.

Legislative budget writers were hopeful as US House committees began last week to flesh out details of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, including sizable financial relief for states and local governments. As explained in CFM’s Under the Dome Blog, the share for Oregon should be at least 500 million and possibly larger. That could make plugging the state’s $1.7 billion anticipated budget hole a lot more manageable. Cities and counties would get their own respective financial aid directly.

One aspect of the budget hole facing Oregon lawmakers is voter approval last November of Measure 110, which reduces punishment for personal possession of most controlled substances as well as requires the Oregon Health Authority to establish addiction recovery centers and funding for substance use disorder services. The measure lays claim to all marijuana tax revenue exceeding $45 million annually, which could siphon funding for schools, mental health, state police and local government in an already competitive budget arena.

The session is on track to consider a whopping 4,000 bills. In a typical session, about a quarter of the bills introduced actually pass into law. The increased number of bills will add pressure to a session being conducted virtually within the technology constraints of digital airtime at the Capitol. Legislative leaders have signaled their priority this session will be on bills addressing homelessness, affordable housing and racial justice.

Some of these bills are placeholders and some may be duplicates. Others are simply unfinished business introduced in the 2019 and 2020 sessions, which were aborted for lack of a quorum when from Republicans in both chambers walked out.