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Oregon lawmakers convened today for a 160-day session with high expectations and a potential revenue hole.

Housing, Mental Health, Schools, Computer Chips Top Agenda

The Oregon Legislative Assembly convenes today for a 160-day session with a new Senate President for the first time in two decades and a new Governor who has made housing and homelessness a top priority.

The most diverse legislature in Oregon history was greeted on opening day with 783 Senate measures and 1,078 House measures already introduced and printed, with more to come. House Bill 2003 addresses campaign contribution limits. House Bill 2004 deals with ranked choice voting.

Legislative focus will be on how to turn Governor Tina Kotek’s goal of producing 36,000 new housing units per year into reality. Reaching that stretch goal will require financing and more flexible zoning. It also will require creativity in matching low-income and supportive housing with access to healthcare services and public transportation and training more construction workers.

Other legislative priorities include fortifying Oregon’s behavioral health system, bolstering public education in high-poverty areas and competing for federal funding to boost domestic semiconductor production and research. Kotek and legislative leaders also want state government to be more responsive and deliver better customer service.

Lawmakers will deal with how to increase the number of public defenders and improve the operation of the state’s mental hospital in Salem.

As the first two House bills indicate, controversial measures will be on the agenda, including how to implement or modify Measure 114, the gun safety initiative that voters approved but has been held by court rulings on its constitutionality under the Second Amendment. Democrats are expected to push for more access to women’s reproductive health in rural parts of the state. Republicans will call for a freeze on property tax increases for older adults. Also expect a debate over whether to divert a portion of the anticipated $3.7 billion kicker rebate and to resume sending refund checks to taxpayers.

Lawmakers, with Kotek’s support, will consider a $300 million fighting fund to lure computer chip manufacturing expansion in Oregon. There may be less agreement on proposed land-use changes to ensure large tracts of land are available for new semiconductor manufacturing facilities. Microchip Technology announced late last year it was scrapping plans for a new $5 billion facility in Gresham. Meanwhile, some lawmakers are expected to seek elimination of incentives for large technology firms such as Amazon to locate data centers in Oregon because of their excessive water usage.

Spending bills will be more challenging this session as state fiscal analysts project a $560 million budget gap to maintain current service levels. A recession this year could wide that gap. Available funding shapes the debate of how much of the state budget will go to public schools. School advocates are seeking $10.3 billion. The state financial officer estimates it would only take $9.52 billion to maintain school funding in light of flat enrollment growth. In addition to money, the education debate will center on accountability for the $1 billion annually from the Student Success Act and steps such a tutoring and early literacy programs to improve lagging student test scores.

As an incoming governor, Kotek has until February 1 to submit her proposed budget. The next quarterly economic and revenue report is due for release in March.

Kicker rebates will return as an issue as Democrats ponder diverting a portion of $3.7 billion in refunds and Republicans press to have taxpayers receive checks.

On a lighter note
Columnist Dick Hughes’ latest post commented on Oregon’s dependence on non-Oregonians, despite iconic slogans such as “Visit but don’t stay” and Oregon’s famous “ungreeting” cards. “Our economy – our progress as a state, including the success of Gov. Kotek’s attempts to combat homelessness – depends on outsiders,” Hughes wrote.

He quotes state economist Josh Lerner,  “Oregon’s ability to attract and retain young, skilled, working-age households is one of, if not the key driver, of the regional economy over the long run.” He estimates only 43 percent of Oregon adults were born in Oregon.

To illustrate the point, Hughes notes that last Oregon governor who was born here was Barbara Roberts, who was born in Corvallis and grew up in Sheridan. Her four successors, including Kotek, were born somewhere else – John Kitzhaber (Washington), Ted Kulongoski (Missouri), Kate Brown (Spain on a U.S. Air Force base) and Kotek (Pennsylvania).

With extra research, Senate President Rob Wagner grew up in the Portland area and graduated from Lake Oswego High School; Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp was born in Portland and graduated from York Community High School in Elmhurst, Illinois; House Speaker Dan Rayfield was born in Orange County, California and graduated from Tigard High School; and House Minority Leader Vicki Breese-Iverson was born in Prineville and graduated from Crook County High School.