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Early days in a new legislative session are given to presentations and briefings to bring returning and new lawmakers up to speed before hearing and voting on bills. One of the first dealt with proposed tolling on Portland highways.

It’s First In-Person Legislative Session Since March 2020

Lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public returned to the Oregon Capitol last week for the first time since March 2020 as the 2023 legislative session convened with an initial pile of 2,000 bills to consider. For more than half of the 90 House and Senate members, it was their first in-person legislative session.

Early days of a legislative session are dedicated to briefings and updates to ensure incoming and returning lawmakers have the same background information before hearings begin in earnest on bills.

The newly combined House Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee heard updates on public health and workforce challenges as well as a report from the Universal Health Care Task Force. Its Senate counterpart looked at Oregon Health Plan dental benefits and previewed the issue of nurse staffing ratios, which will be a major point of contention between providers and labor during the session.

The Joint Committee on Transportation received a Department of Transportation briefing on implementing highway tolls and congestion pricing in the Portland area. The committee will hear this week from transit providers who will discuss public safety challenges they face in serving their local communities.

Spending deliberations won’t kick off until Governor Tina Kotek submits her first budget proposal February 1. Observers expect the K-12 education budget may be the first spending bill to reach the House and Senate floors. State budget forecasters predict $9.52 billion, a 2.36 percent increase over the current biennium, should be adequate to maintain current service levels in the face of flat enrollment growth. Education advocates are asking for $10.3 billion.

Other major spending decisions center on Kotek’s goal of producing 36,000 new housing units annually and a $440 million fighting fund to compete for federal semiconductor industry investment dollars. One computer chip manufacturer has scrapped plans for a new $5 billion manufacturing facility in Gresham and Intel has committed to expansion in Arizona and a mega manufacturing facility in Ohio while chopping a $700 million expansion in Hillsboro.

State economists will unveil the latest revenue report in a few weeks as the overall economy reflects mixed signals. Oregon employers are still hiring and unemployment remains low. The national inflation rate is inching down, but major technology companies have announced massive layoffs. Lawmakers may face a $500 million revenue shortfall to sustain current service level funding. Raising tax revenue is problematic without Democratic legislative supermajorities. It’s unknown whether a bipartisan agreement could be reached to tap into the state’s reserves, which swelled during the pandemic when revenues eclipsed forecasts.

Another revenue wild card is the projected $3.7 billion kicker rebate that Oregon taxpayers will receive when they fill out their tax returns in 2024.

Another revenue wild card is the projected $3.7 billion kicker rebate that Oregon taxpayers will receive when they fill out their tax returns in 2024. There could be an effort to grab a portion of the rebate to fund programs. Republicans are on record advocating for remitting kicker refunds with checks to taxpayers, the way the kicker law was originally constructed.

An audit released last week by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan indicates few people are seeking treatment for drug addiction through a hotline set up under provisions of voter-approved Measure 110 to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. The critical audit also reported delays in issuing grants, inconsistencies in grant decisions and failure to collect data on how investments are working. An editorial in The Oregonian called for swift legislative response to a sharp rise in drug overdose deaths and reports of open drug use. Legislators have formed work groups.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum unveiled her legislative concepts that addressed consumer privacy, labor trafficking and sales of untraceable firearms.

Bill Schonely Death
The death over the weekend of Bill Schonely, the original broadcast voice of the Portland Trail Blazers and creator of “Rip City”, is expected to be honored in coming days at the legislature.

Newspaper Closures
Two Oregon newspapers closed this month. The Medford Mail Tribune, Oregon’s longest running newspaper and the first to win a Pulitzer Prize, had dropped print editions earlier, but abrupted ceased all publication January 13. The Rogue Valley Messenger closed its doors the same day.

The East Oregonian Media Group, with daily newspapers in Pendleton, Bend, Astoria, Baker City, Enterprise, La Grande, Hermiston and John Day., announced it would begin publishing The Tribune online with three print editions featuring community news report by a newsroom staff of 14.

More than 360 newspapers have shut down across America since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, creating “news deserts” with limited access to local news and making rural residents more dependent on news from cable networks and social media.