Government, politics, Salem

‘Sine Die’: The highlights of Oregon’s historic 2021 legislative session

The Oregon Capitol building in Salem. Photo: Chas Hundley

The Oregon Legislature wrapped up Saturday, marking the end of an eventful session that included high profile legislation, a resignation and the first expulsion of a legislator in state history.

The session, which began Jan. 21 after a two-day delay from concerns about possible attacks from right-wing extremists, saw lawmakers take up bills addressing pandemic relief, wildfire relief, police reform, racism and a landmark energy bill. OPB reported in January that Gov. Kate Brown said “the challenging times we have faced in the last year have really created the legislative agenda.” Brown’s assessment proved true.

Pandemic relief

While lawmakers addressed pandemic relief during special sessions in 2020, it was clear there was still much work to be done after the pandemic killed nearly 1,500 people last year and severely hampered the economy. 

Tens of thousands of Oregonians remained out of work and even more remained behind on rent and mortgage payments in 2021. Oregon lawmakers extended eviction and foreclosure moratoriums for people struggling as a result of the pandemic, including an amendment to Senate Bill 278 passed Tuesday that gave renters who have applied for assistance an additional 60 days after the June 30 deadline before possibly facing eviction. For renters who have not applied for assistance, the eviction moratorium ends June 30. However, in May, the legislature passed a grace period that will remain in effect until Feb. 28, 2022, for renters to pay late rent accrued during the moratorium.

Also in May, lawmakers passed an extension of the foreclosure moratorium that allowed people to put their mortgage in forbearance through June. Brown has since extended the foreclosure moratorium through September.

Lawmakers also passed other bills designed to lessen the economic impacts of COVID-19, including Senate Bill 172, which allows the Oregon Employment Department to waive repayment on unemployment claims paid in error. It was signed into law by Brown on Wednesday, further highlighting how much impactful work came down to the wire. The same day Brown signed SB 172 into law, lawmakers passed House Bill 3389, which allows some businesses to defer a portion of payroll taxes for the state’s unemployment trust fund, which increased in 2021 and in some cases receive forgiveness for a portion of the increase.

House Bill 5006 was also passed Saturday and awaits Brown’s signature. The bill, largely funded by federal pandemic aid, will direct $4 million to each Oregon Senate district and $2 million to each house district. Senators and representatives will be tasked with deciding how the money is spent.

Wildfire relief

After a historically destructive 2020 wildfire season and conditions in 2021 not giving much cause for optimism, lawmakers passed several laws to provide relief for those affected by wildfires. Chiefly among them is Senate Bill 762 passed just before the buzzer Saturday. The bill will provide nearly $200 million in new funding to address wildfires.

SB 762 will create more than 12 new programs largely intended to assist in wildfire prevention and recovery, as well as provide funding for fighting wildfires.

The legislature also passed House Bill 2341, which will provide tax relief for people who own property damaged by wildfires. 

Police reform

A slew of police reform bills passed the Oregon Legislature and were sent to Brown’s desk to be signed into law, while arguably the most significant reform awaits her signature. House Bill 2930 was passed by the Senate Saturday and will create a centralized police oversight board and result in police unions having less power in determining discipline for officers who engage in misconduct.

Other police reform bills passed just before the end of the session and await Brown’s signature, including House Bill 2932, which requires Oregon law enforcement to participate in the FBI’s use of force database, and for a report to be generated for the legislature each year on use of force in Oregon. Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), a chief sponsor on HB 2932, was a sponsor on almost every police reform bill to originate from the House and chair of the House Subcommittee On Equitable Policing.

Some laws were a direct response to policing of racial justice protests throughout Oregon following the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. Notably in this category is a new law, House Bill 3355, strengthening identification requirements for officers working crowd control in cities with a population over 60,000, aside from Oregon State Police. 

Other new laws are in response to broader calls for police transparency and accountability during a year of racial reckoning in the U.S., as well as a law aimed at curbing the militarization of police forces in Oregon. 

Oregon House Bill 2929, amended a law requiring officers to report misconduct from fellow officers passed in 2020 to expand and strengthen requirements for officers to report misconduct. House Bill 2513 will require officers to be educated about airway anatomy, CPR certified and require them to summon medical aid for people in custody who appear to be experiencing cardiac or respiratory difficulties. Another law was added to the books requiring police receive training to investigate gender-based crimes as another form of bias crime, known as House Bill 2986. 

Another law, House Bill 2481, intended to slow the militarization of police forces in Oregon by prohibiting forces from obtaining military surplus equipment like armed drones and aircraft, as well as grenades and grenade launchers. For other military surplus equipment that is not prohibited by the law, forces must use their own funds instead of federal funds, often available in the form of grants, to purchase them.

In total, more than 20 police reform bills passed the legislature during the 2021 regular session.

Addressing racism 

Lawmakers also continued passing legislation designed to address racism and systemic disenfranchisement during the 2021 session. House Bill 2949, which requires the Oregon Health Authority to establish incentives and programs to increase the mental health workforce, includes specific provisions to increase accessibility to “culturally responsive behavioral health services by tribal members, people of color,” among others.

Further seeking to address systemic racism in health care was House Bill 3352, which guarantees Medicare to all who qualify, regardless of immigration status. HB 3352 received final approval Saturday from the Senate.

The Oregon Legislature also passed a law making displaying a noose a misdemeanor bias crime constituting intimidation citing recent racist attacks in which nooses were displayed. 

Additionally, the state voted to make Juneteenth an official state holiday. It was signed into law by Brown on June 19 — the annual date for Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery and the emancipation of enslaved people after the end of the Civil War.

Climate change

As temperatures rose into the triple digits throughout much of the state Saturday, lawmakers passed one of the most ambitious climate bills in state history: House Bill 2021. HB 2021 sets 2040 as a goal for the state to reach 100% carbon-free energy. It largely passed the Senate along party lines Saturday with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

Sexual harassment and a historic expulsion

The legislature saw two lawmakers’ seats vacated during the session. On Feb. 21, then-Rep. Diego Hernandez (D-Portland), chose to resign rather than face expulsion after a panel of lawmakers found he had sexually harassed three female colleagues and created a hostile work environment.

Another lawmaker in hot water as a result of sexual harassment allegations was Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie). Witt was removed from his role as chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee by House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) on June 7 after Rep. Vikki Breese-Iverson (R-Prineville) filed a formal harassment complaint about text messages Witt sent in April. The Oregon House Committee on Conduct found Witt had violated Rule 27, which prohibits discrimination and harassment in the statehouse, during a June 1 meeting.

Then-Rep. Mike Nearman (R-Independence), became the first state representative expelled in state history after footage surfaced on June 4 that showed him helping plan what he called “Operation Hall Pass,” which culminated in him opening a door for armed far-right protesters to breach the statehouse on Dec. 21 during a special session. Nearman had already been stripped of his committee assignments after the footage of him opening the door for the protesters surfaced in January. 

After footage indicated the act was pre-meditated, each of his republican colleagues called on him to resign in a June 7 letter. He was expelled less than one week later on June 10 and represented the only vote against the motion to expel.

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