Housing, mental health: Oregon lawmakers face linked crises

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers will take up a full slate of legislation on pressing and polarizing issues from homelessness to gun control to drugs when the legislative session starts next week after midterm elections that cost Democrats their supermajority but swept in a new, progressive governor.

A top priority is addressing the interconnected crises of homelessness and mental health that have seized the state for years. Dozens of new bills target sticking points that make it difficult provide mental health and drug treatment to those in need and to build housing.

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.

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

A bill to secure ongoing funding for the new national 988 mental health hotline ranks high on the agenda of the state House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care, said its chair, Rep. Rob Nosse. The bill proposes taxing cell phone subscribers 50 cents a month in order to maintain the helpline and ensure effective routing of calls. The move could raise about $60 million per budget biennium, state analysts estimate.

“A lot of acute mental health challenges can be resolved over the phone,” Nosse said. “People just getting to talk to somebody can take their temperature down. So we need to stand up that system.”

988, the country’s first three-digit mental health crisis hotline, launched in July. It built on the existing network that staffed the old National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. When called, a dispatcher connects people with trained mental health counselors instead of police or paramedics. In the six months since it launched, the helpline has received over 2 million calls, texts and chat messages.

While the federal government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the project, states are expected to take over operation and funding of the line — just as they do with 911 emergency call services. So far, five states — Washington, California, Nevada, Colorado and Virginia — have passed cell phone taxes to fund 988, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Other bills that may prove controversial would make it easier to force certain people into mental health treatment, echoing a growing debate in the state and nationwide about hospitalizing people against their will. One bill, for example, would allow judges to civilly commit someone for substance use disorder if that person is also determined to have a mental illness that makes them unable to care for themselves or dangerous to themselves or others.

In the face of the state’s high drug addiction rates, Republicans have introduced several bills that would repeal all or parts of Ballot Measure 110, which was approved by voters in 2020 and made Oregon the first state in the country to decriminalize hard drugs.

One of the most significant bills introduced seeks to facilitate building homes by changing planning and land-use rules. Oregon is short 110,000 housing units and needs to build more than a half-million homes over the next 20 years in order to keep up with demand, officials have estimated.

“We know we need to double our rate of housing production to meet the need right now,” said state Rep. Julie Fahey, the Democratic House Majority Leader.

Democrats, who control the Legislature, have also advanced gun control bills as a legal battle plays out in the courts over a narrowly passed, voter-approved measure that would require a permit to purchase a firearm and ban high-capacity magazines. They’re set to spar with Republicans, who have introduced several of their own bills that would loosen gun regulations.

One Democratic bill would outlaw “ ghost guns,” untraceable firearms without a serial number that an individual can assemble themselves. Another, which has yet to be formally introduced, would raise the age for buying and possessing a firearm to 21, with exceptions for hunting, law enforcement and military members. While federal law sets the minimum age to buy a handgun as 21, it allows for people 18 or older to buy a rifle or a shotgun.

Regarding voting rights — an increasingly contentious issue following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that voter fraud cost him reelection in 2020 — a bill has been introduced that would automatically register people on Oregon’s Medicaid plan to vote, expanding on the state’s Motor Voter law. That first-in-the-nation law, which took effect in 2016, automatically registers people who renew or apply for a driver’s license or ID card at the DMV. Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said the bill could add about 170,000 people to the voter rolls.

Oregon’s Motor Voter law and vote-by-mail system have been credited for boosting participation in elections the state. It had the highest turnout rate nationally in the November midterms, with 61.5% of eligible voters casting a ballot.

Additionally, House Democrats say they plan to introduce a bill that would protect people in Oregon from criminal and civil liability for receiving or providing an abortion. The move would add Oregon to the list of states that have taken steps to shield people from lawsuits in states where abortion has been banned or severely restricted following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Republicans, meanwhile, have introduced a bill that would ban abortion after 15 weeks except in a medical emergency. Abortion is currently legal in Oregon at all stages of pregnancy.

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.

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