Oregon lawmakers show signs of bipartisan harmony to start legislative session

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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers in both the Democratic and Republican parties named housing, homelessness and mental health as top priorities on Tuesday as they began the 2023 legislative session on a note of relative bipartisan good will.

Whether that lasts, or dissolves into acrimony, threats and walkouts as occurred in recent sessions, will be tested as the lawmakers grapple with more divisive issues, such as gun control, drugs and abortion rights.

Convening in person without COVID-19 restrictions for the first time since the pandemic, legislators reiterated calls to boost housing construction, protect renters from eviction, increase homeless shelter capacity and expand mental health and addiction services.

RELATED: Housing, mental health: Oregon lawmakers face linked crises

RELATED: ‘A man-made disaster:’ Oregon Gov. Kotek tackles housing

In a gesture of bipartisanship, Democratic and Republican leaders of the Democrats in the Oregon House held a joint news conference to highlight areas of common ground.

“We spent a lot of time looking at campaign mailers during the last six months, and one thing that you saw that is very uniform — it didn’t matter whether you were a Democrat or a Republican —- every candidate was talking about housing. Every candidate was talking about behavioral health. Every candidate was talking about housing supply,” House Speaker Dan Rayfield told reporters.

House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson concurred.

“Housing, homelessness and mental health. We agree with our colleagues across the aisle — these are immediate problems,” Breese-Iverson said. “My expectation is this session will be one of true bipartisan collaboration, where the voice of the minority party is heard and not just pushed aside or ignored as it has been in the past.”

In the face of solid Democratic control of the Legislature, Republicans in recent years have relied on delay tactics, including walkouts, to stall legislation.

Frustrated by the walkouts, Oregon voters in November overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure aiming to limit them. Measure 113 added language to the Oregon Constitution establishing that state lawmakers will be disqualified from re-election if they are absent from 10 legislative floor sessions without permission or excuse.

Democrats still control both chambers of the Legislature but lost their three-fifths supermajority in November’s election, meaning they will need some Republican support to raise revenue through taxes.

The bipartisan will to tackle housing comes as homelessness has reached into nearly every corner of the state. Oregon has some of the highest rates of homelessness and drug addiction in the nation, federal data shows — stemming largely from a critical housing shortage, rising rents and a lack of mental health services.

One of the first hearings of the new legislative session was held Tuesday by the House Housing and Homelessness Committee. Speaking to lawmakers, the director of the state’s housing finance agency, Oregon Housing and Community Services, said Oregon needs more than 140,000 homes in order to meet demand.

“The crisis that we are facing in terms of homelessness has manifested over years,” director Andrea Bell said. “And it will take time and persistence and consistency to get us out of this.”

The state also needs about 14,000 units of permanent supportive housing that are affordable for households with little to no income in order to address chronic homelessness, Bell said.

Other key issues that lawmakers from both parties have said they want to address include the state’s lack of public defenders and a workforce shortage that’s gripped sectors from health care to child care. Attracting the semiconductor industry — and the windfall of federal money that would come along with it — is another shared bipartisan goal.

Salem this year has ushered in a new governor in progressive former Speaker Tina Kotek and a new Senate president, Rob Wagner. Wagner, a Democrat, replaced Peter Courtney, who served a record 20 years in the position. In addition, about a third of the Oregon House has new members.

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