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The 2024 Oregon legislative session ended early after approving major housing, drug possession and campaign donation limit measures with bipartisan majorities.

Lawmakers Okay Housing, Drug Possession, Summer School, Donor Limit Bills

Oregon lawmakers adjourned two days early after approving major housing, drug possession and campaign finance measures, but failing to approve wildfire funding and a permanent switch to standard time.

In contrast to the 2023 legislative session interrupted by a six-week Senate Republican walkout, the five-week 2024 session was marked by bipartisanship and compromise on high-profile issues. “This session shows that working together, we’re able to get some things accomplished,” said House Republican Leader Jeff Helfrich, R- Hood River.

Bills to boost housing production and recriminalize drug possession headlined legislative coverage. Lawmakers scaled back Governor Kotek’s proposed $500 million housing investment and Democrats and Republicans reached a compromise on a penalty for possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. Kotek has signaled she will sign both.

Other notable bills that passed during the short session included funding for semiconductor worker training, summer school, arts organizations, employment-related day care and improved pensions for district attorneys, firefighters and police officers.

Lawmakers also okayed a right to repair bill for electronics products and a task force to study how to reduce suicides by gun, while empowering a state agency to penalize child labor law violations and blocking an urban growth boundary expansion vote in North Plains.

Other failed measures sought to reduce corporate ownership of health care practices, expand school-based health centers, continue free community college tuition, prohibit book bans and correct overpayment of road fees by truckers.

Before adjourning, the House formally elected Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, as Speaker after Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, stepped down to concentrate on his race for attorney general.

Campaign Finance Limits
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the session was passage of campaign finance limitations negotiated by business and labor and approved by a majority of Democrats and Republicans. Oregon now will remove itself from the small list of states without any campaign contribution limits.

The bill, which was still in flux two weeks ago, was passed by the Senate on a 22-6 vote and the House on a 52-5 vote. Passage of the legislation will head off an expected initiative this fall.

Under the bill, individuals may only contribute up to $3,300 to any state office or district attorney candidate per election. Political parties are limited to contributions of $30,000 per election for candidates seeking statewide offices and $15,000 for House and Senate candidates.

Under pressure from good government groups, the maximum donations from small-donor committees was reduced. Cities and counties would be allowed to impose their own campaign contribution limits.“This bill is still flawed, but it’s now strong enough to stand as a good first step toward comprehensive campaign finance reform,” said Common Cause Oregon Executive Director Kate Titus. “This is a historic moment, but our work is not over.” The contribution limits go into effect January 2027.

Wildfire Funding
The session started with bills to address landowner wildfire protection fees, home hardening, wildfire prevention and response, and survivor compensation. Only Senate Bill 1520 survived that ensures wildfire survivors don’t need to pay state income tax on compensation and settlements from losses. It passed both chambers with unanimous votes.

Sharp disagreements blocked movement on other measures, including one backed by Governor Kotek to increase the timber harvest tax and reduce per-acre wildfire protection fees paid by ranch and timber landowners. House Bill 4133 was scheduled for a vote mid-week in a Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee, but was pulled.

The other wildfire funding bills would have reinstated Oregon’s severance tax on the value of industrial timber harvests and referred a measure to voters to raise property taxes.

Summer School Funding
The $30 million approved for summer programs was short of the original $50 million ask, but more than the zilch school districts received last year after federal pandemic funding ended.

The $30 million will be split among the state’s 197 school districts and 19 education service districts, with priority for 530 Title I schools, where at least one-third of students are from low-income households or receive support services from the state. Community-based nonprofits also can receive funding and a work group will be established to explore sustainable summer school funding options.

Summer programs have been shown to boost learning and recover from learning loss resulting from pandemic school closures.

Arts Organization Funding
Lawmakers earmarked nearly $6 million to provide ‘resiliency’ funding to struggling arts organizations still trying to find their footing after the pandemic. Funding will go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, High Desert Museum, Portland Art Museum, Portland Opera, Portland Center Stage, Oregon Ballet Theatre and Oregon Symphony

Funding ranged from $342,000 for the Oregon Ballet Theater to $2.56 million for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Some capital projects were also funded including $1 million for the Clatsop County Historical Society to expand the Oregon Film Museum and $900,000 for the Black United Fund of Oregon to build a United Futures Complex. Not included was a $2 million capital request by the High Desert Museum as part of major expansion project.

Lawmakers did agree to provide $15 million to the Hillsboro Hops minor league baseball team for a new stadium. The Hops faced a March 15 deadline to secure funding or face possible relocation of the team affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Team owners are contributing $82 million of the expected $120 million total cost. Hillsboro, Washington County and a nonprofit that promotes Tualatin Valley tourism pitched in another $28 million.

Multnomah County received $25 million to replace a drop-off sobering center that was closed at the end of 2019.

Employment-Related Day Care
Lawmakers approved $171 million for the Employment-Related Day Care program, which pays for child care for 12,000 low-income families. “The legislature prioritized increased funding for Employment Related Day Care because we understand how critical child care is for working families in every corner of the state,” said Senator Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

A coalition of 135 organizations pressed the legislature to increase funding for the program that has experienced significant caseload increases, which was projected to burn through the existing budget by next January. The legislature in 2021 expanded eligibility for subsidized child care. Now there is a waitlist to enroll children and day care officials said they may not have enough financial resources to eliminate it.

Semiconductor Worker Training
An anticipated surge in demand for semiconductor workers persuaded lawmakers to approve $10 million for six universities and community colleges to create a sustaining fund to support semiconductor worker training.

Oregon’s semiconductor employment shrank last year amid an industry pullback in response to slowing sales. Proposed expansion, induced by state and federal subsidies, is expected to create 6,000 new semiconductor jobs. Semiconductor officials say there aren’t enough trained manufacturing personnel to fill those future jobs.

PBM Regulation
Overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate approved House Bill 4149 that will impose state regulation of pharmacy benefit managers, which negotiate prices between drug manufacturers and health insurance companies. The negotiations affect prices consumers pay for drugs and regulation is intended to increase transparency on delivering patient benefits.

Pharmacy benefit managers have come under scrutiny for practices such as “spread pricing” in which they pocket the savings they negotiate on drug prices rather than passing them along to drug purchases. Rebates and discounts paid by manufacturers to PBMs totaled $334 billion for all brand-name drugs in 2023. The three largest PBMs negotiate prices for 90 percent of patients with health insurance.

PBMs have expanded their role to market drugs for manufacturers and set up mail-order pharmacies. CVS, which owns Caremark, one of the big three PBMs, recently merged with insurer Aetna.

School Bus Cameras
Under provisions of House Bill 4147, school districts will be allowed to equip school buses with cameras to capture cars that ignore flashing red lights so police can cite them for fines up to $2,000. The bill was introduced by Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Wilsonville, in response to a near-miss incident involving a student at Wilsonville High School.

“Too many drivers are disregarding their duty to stop and protect kids getting on and off the school bus,” said Senator Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, “It’s clear that we need more accountability to protect our students.” Some 1,400 incidents were reported by school bus drivers in 2023.