July 23, 2024

Oregon lawmakers put more than $1 billion toward last-minute budget needs

Construction at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Oregon Capital Chronicle photo by Amanda Loman
June 20, 2023

The ‘Christmas-tree bill’ puts money toward a mix of projects and causes, including public defenders, wildfire fighting and state employee pay raises and benefits for those seeking citizenship 

By Ben Botkin, Oregon Capital Chronicle 

Oregon lawmakers on Tuesday tucked $1.1 billion into an end-of-session budget bill, a move that pumps last-minute cash into purposes ranging from preparing for natural disasters to helping people  seeking citizenship.

The proposal, called the “Christmas tree bill” by capitol observers because it’s loaded with spending like a tree with ornaments, serves a key purpose: Lawmakers, state agencies and lobbyists can get money for  projects and needs that didn’t attract as much attention earlier in the legislative session. The Joint Ways and Means Committee heard the proposal on Tuesday, sending Senate Bill 5506 to the Legislature for a vote as lawmakers face a Sunday deadline to adjourn. 

The 124-page list of budget projects sprinkles money throughout state agencies and services. The bill also provides money for local priorities, including courthouse renovations, new fire stations, roads, sewer systems and broadband service.

The end-of-session bill gives lawmakers a chance to push for projects in their districts, whether rural or urban. Some Republican lawmakers raised concerns about rural Oregon getting short-changed, such as by not receiving enough money for wildfire fighting or children’s advocacy centers that serve youth in small communities.

But even rural lawmakers can still go home with something.

“We’re at that point in the session where no one’s going to be entirely happy,” said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner. “I felt as if my voice was heard.”

Here’s a look at the highlights:

  • $450 million for state employee compensation increases, including those needed to aid recruitment and retention of staff. The budget bill doesn’t specify what salary raises employees will get. That’s up to state agency managers, who often negotiate with unions for raises. That work is ongoing, including Oregon’s negotiations with the union that represents about half of state employees.
  • $50 million to help the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Human Services respond to increased demand from Oregonians for services including  food assistance, medical coverage and child welfare.
  • $35 million to help the state prepare and respond to natural disasters.
  • $23 million for a state program that helps working Oregonians cover part of their child care costs. $15 million will go toward increased payments to providers in the program, and another $8 million will help the state enroll more people.
  • $22 million for wildlife prevention and firefighting in Oregon, including equipment, staffing and aid for communities.
  • $20.9 million to provide housing and food benefits to people pursuing citizenship. 
  • $20 million to help the Oregon Health Authority cover costs of modernizing the public health system. The COVID pandemic demonstrated the need for states to have robust public health systems to collect data and conduct community outreach.
  • $19.4 million so providers of residential psychiatric facilities and community programs for children can pay employees better. The children need extra help because of homelessness, addiction, abuse or behavioral health challenges.
  • $13.8 million for community violence prevention programs that reach people who have a high risk of arrest or becoming a crime victim. It provides $10 million for state grants to cities and $3.8 million for the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, which mentors and provides youth and adults with education, job training and placement.
  • $8.9 million in stipends to teachers and classified school employees who work in special education for the 2024-205 school year.
  • $7.6 million to Oregon State Police to conduct background checks for people who are purchasing firearms. Measure 114, a voter-approved proposal, would require the state to set up a new permit-to-purchase system with safety courses for applicants purchasing firearms. The measure faces court challenges. 
  • $5 million for grants to help Oregon police agencies target illegal marijuana grows.
  • $1 million for district attorneys for costs related to cases with non-unanimous jury verdicts, including victim assistance and investigations. The Oregon Supreme Court in December 2022 determined that non-unanimous jury verdicts are not constitutionally sound and have overturned hundreds of cases involving felony convictions. 
  • $100,000 so the state can study the pros and cons of decriminalizing prostitution in order to combat human trafficking. 
Republicans voice concerns

Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, said he was concerned about the state’s plans to study decriminalizing prostitution. The negative impacts of Measure 110, which decriminalized low-level drug possession, demonstrate why doing the same for prostitution is a bad idea, Girod said. 

“That sort of philosophy, in my opinion, just doesn’t work,” Girod said.

In an earlier meeting Thursday about the budget bill, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, said the study would explore the question in part because sex trafficking victims are worried they will be prosecuted.

Girod also said he’s concerned about a requirement of the budget bill for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to study fish hatcheries and develop models for their long-term finances and sustainability in light of climate change. He raised concerns the measure could become a starting point that would lead to the state shutting down hatcheries, stressing their value in rural areas.

Steiner said there were no conversations about shutdowns of hatcheries related to the study.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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Bert Etling

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