The far-reaching, just-concluded 2021 Legislature was the most expensive in Oregon history, approaching $30 billion in basic spending for 2021.
Here are five takeaways from the 159-day session, which was conducted behind closed entrance doors at the Oregon Capitol in Salem. Also, at the end of today’s Capital Chatter is an intriguing legislative resignation letter.
1. Does anyone know what the Legislature did?
Plenty of issues made the headlines: law enforcement reform, wildfire prevention and recovery, housing and homelessness, mental health care, gun control, climate change, systemic racism, taxes, childcare and more. However, so much transpired since the session began Jan. 19 that lawmakers across the political spectrum are still digging into what they accomplished, or not.
“To be frank with you, I don’t know all the things we’ve done,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told reporters shortly after the Legislature formally adjourned at 5:37 p.m. Saturday. “I don’t know the magnitude of what we’ve done or haven’t done.”
Other lawmakers echoed that sentiment.
2. Have money, will spend
In a stunning financial reversal, the Legislature was awash in money. The challenge turned from cutting spending – which lawmakers were doing only a year ago – to where to use the extra dough.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the Legislature finally regained ground lost during the Great Recession but also made additional investments. “I’ve never seen budgets like this in the state of Oregon,” she said. “Never.”
Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, who served on the Legislature’s budget committee, put it differently.
“There’s a philosophy of, ‘If you’ve got it, spend it,’” he said. “I can see why budgets continue to grow, grow, grow.”
The state was bailed out by billions in federal pandemic relief, including aid to agencies, businesses and nonprofits, along with expanded jobless benefits. The Employment Department has distributed $9.6 billion in benefits since Gov. Kate Brown instituted business closures and restrictions in mid-March 2020.
3. Big spending creates big expectations
Kotek, Courtney and some colleagues worry whether agencies and service providers will meet the Legislature’s commitments.
“One of the things we’ll have to be really good about is keeping track of what’s happening and making sure things are staying on track,” Kotek said. “That really is an important question – that we’re actually moving things in a way that helps people.”
Other legislators agreed, saying that would be a priority once they take a brief respite to recover from the session. “After decades of this message of ‘The government is the problem,’ I think we have the opportunity to demonstrate how we can help be part of the solution,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland.
4. Be ready for sunny days
This year’s Legislature divvied millions of dollars among Oregon communities and organizations that had projects at the ready. Meanwhile, several billion federal dollars are expected to flow to Oregon transportation and infrastructure needs, thanks to Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Fourth District, and others.
DeFazio, of Springfield, chairs the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The House on Thursday passed his $715 billion INVEST in America Act, and the U.S. Senate is having its own infrastructure discussions.
One of this year’s lessons is you never know when funding might be available for long-awaited projects, so don’t sit on the sidelines. The then-Salem City Council made that error several years ago by setting aside long-developed plans for a second vehicle bridge across the Willamette River, which divides the capital. The bridge, a priority for rural transportation and urban commutes alike, has been a regional priority since the 1970s.
5. Women lead the way
Gov. Brown seemed an anomaly this year. Legislative leaders interacted with her regularly – virtually, instead of in-person, due to the Capitol health protocols. But Oregonians didn’t hear much from her about the Legislature. The governor didn’t even hold a press conference afterward to discuss the Legislature’s accomplishments, although she did issue a congratulatory press release.
However, much of the supermajority Democrats’ progressive legislation was led by women. Women were at the forefront of Republican efforts, especially in the House. No longer were rookie legislators, whether women or men, figuratively relegated to the back bench and expected to wait their turn.
“I think the Legislature grew up,” said Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland.
A parting message: The reasons behind Nate Monson’s abrupt resignation as acting legislative equity officer remain murky. Was he fed up or forced out? When I asked Speaker Kotek, she simply said Monson wasn’t the right fit for the job.
The Legislative Equity Office works on enforcing the Legislature’s rules against harassment and a hostile workplace. While Monson’s successor is being recruited and hired, outside lawyers will be available to take conduct complaints.
On June 15, Monson sent a letter to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Conduct saying he was resigning as of the next day.
In his letter, Monson wrote: “The Legislative Equity Office can be a national example for legislative branches. The Legislative Equity Office as it stands is essentially non-existent. When I started, there were no case files, electronic documents, trainings scheduled, and bills that were unpaid resulting in investigations lasting on average 10 months over this past year. There were outstanding cases where individuals tried to file but heard nothing back.
“The severity of the situation means that justice is not being given to those who have come forward and may cost taxpayers millions in lawsuits from the liability of not having proper procedures, documentation, and oversight.
“… For the sake of the next person, take some time to consider the office, the role, and how to be strategic in its functions.
“For those who have been harmed and continue to be harmed by harassers in the Oregon Capitol, please take up the oversight responsibilities to bring correction to the Legislative Equity Office before your next Officer comes on board.”