The Monday after the 2021 state legislative session ended, nearly a dozen members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) Caucus gathered remotely to discuss significant wins over a hectic few weeks many called historic.
“Our 12-member caucus presented an ambitious policy agenda to address the roots of structural racism and promote racial equity, accountability, justice, and healing,” Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Happy Valley) said in her introduction. “This session, our caucus prioritized and delivered on affordable housing, and the houselessness crisis, public safety and police reform and accountability, environmental justice, education, equity, immigrant and refugee rights, economic opportunity and development, health care, infrastructure, health care access and affordability, mental and behavioral health, and cultural preservation and celebration.”
Consistent among the bills was a focus on equity.
“By approaching legislation using an intersectionality lens, we will continue to advance the racial justice movement started by leaders who paved the way for all of us to be here,” Rep. Rick Ruiz (D-Gresham) said.
“We have seen a real change in this caucus...
"A real change in legislature because of the things that we managed to get done,” Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) said, noting that when he began his career in the legislature, he and then-Sen. Jackie Winters were the only Black members in the capitol.
The BIPOC Caucus includes Sens. Frederick (D-Portland), Kayse Jama (D-Portland), James Manning (D-Eugene), and Reps. Teresa Alonso Leon (D-Woodburn), Bynum, Wlnsvey Campos (D-Aloha), Mark Meek (D-Oregon City), Khanh Pham (D-Portland), Ruiz, Andrea Salinas (D-Lake Oswego), Tawna Sanchez (D-Portland), Andrea Valderrama (D-East Portland).
They highlighted a list of successful proposals:
House Bill 2475 authorizes the Public Utilities Commission to create a discounted rate for low-income households, and is expected to significantly lower utility bills for low-income communities of color and rural families. Effective Jan. 1 of next year.
HB 2842, the “healthy homes bill,” invests $10 million to allow the Oregon Health Authority to issue financial assistance grants for home repairs in low-income households. Repairs may include energy efficiency upgrades, smoke filtration and septic system repair.
“This bill will ensure that these families can lower their energy bills and be better prepared for emergencies like the ones we’re in now,” Pham said.
HB 2021 sets a path for the state using 100% clean energy by 2040, outlining workforce equity goals that 50% of employees hired in the field be women, BIPOC, people with disability, and/or veterans.
“All of these bills reflect the frontline voices that have engaged in our legislative process advocating for a more community-led response to environmental justice concerns,” Pham said. “It’s never been more urgent to take action as we face unprecedented heat, drought, wildfires, and other climate disasters.”
HB 2590, “the student voice bill,” creates the Task Force on Student Success for Underrepresented Students in Higher Education.
“This will give lawmakers the opportunity to hear directly from students voices and ultimately reimagine how our postsecondary institutions can successfully serve all of our students,” Alonso Leon said.
HB 2166 creates a program to prevent early childhood suspension and expulsion in schools, as well as developing social emotional learning content standards, outlining standards of educator equity and identifying nontraditional pathways to licensure for educators.
HB 2052 requires schools to allow students to wear clothing and other items Native American cultural significance at public school events, including at graduation commencement ceremonies. Alonso Leon noted that many students graduating from high school this year had already benefited from the law.
“Additionally, we passed a historic $9.3 billion to the state school fund budget, which is the most amount of money the legislature has ever invested in our state schools and will allow many students to catch up and prepare for the next year,” Alonso Leon said.
Senate Bill 282 gives tenants who fell behind on rent during the pandemic an additional grace period to repay, extending the deadline until Feb. 28 of next year.
HB 2100 creates the Task Force on Homelessness and Racial Disparities in what Campos called “the first modernization of Oregon’s homelessness services system in 30 years.” The taskforce will examine access to houseless services and submit a report by Jan. 15 of next year.
SB 291 limits the type of criminal charges and convictions potential tenants must disclose during the rental application screening process, decreasing some barriers to renting for those with a criminal background.
SB 850 aims to improve record-keeping on those who die while houseless. If a person dies while unhoused, their residence will be recorded as “domicile unknown.”
“This is so important because this allows us to collect statewide data on numbers and causes of death on houseless Oregonians,” Campos said. “We need that empirical data to adequately identify and address the issues taking the lives of houseless Oregonians every year.”
HB 2935, the Crown Act, bans school and employer discrimination “on physical characteristics that are historically associated with race,” Bynum explained. A previous iteration of the bill last year fell victim to the Republican mid-session walkout.
“Now Oregonians of color, or all Oregonians actually, can bring their whole selves to work or to school,” Bynum said.
HB 2518 paves the way for “brownfield” or vacant lot cleanup through forgivable loans, and directs the Oregon Business Development Department to find ways to encourage minority- and women-owned businesses to provide remediation and removal services on such plots of land.
HB 2551 extends a program that provides tax credits for those who contribute to international development accounts, a matched savings program available to low-income households.
In addition, Bynum said, the BIPOC caucus had urged Congress to pass Senate Joint Memorial 4 to begin the process of reparations for African Americans.
SB 778 appropriates $1.4 million to establish the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Advancement to oversee and operate statewide integration strategies for immigrant and refugee integration.
SB 718 allocates $4.3 million to increase access to health care, employment, housing, financial,and education supports and services for refugees.
HB 3265 strengthens Oregon’s status as a sanctuary state by prohibiting law enforcement and other public bodies from withholding services from anyone on the basis of their immigration status. The bill also prohibits such agencies from asking about citizenship status if it is not directly related to a criminal investigation, nor can agencies disclose immigration status information about a person in custody to the federal immigration authority.
HB 2359, also known as the Healthcare Interpretation Accountability Act, requires that health care providers work with language interpreters from the Oregon Health Authority’s health care interpreter registry.
HB 3352 allocates $100 million to expand Medicaid access to undocumented Oregonians who would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid coverage.
Salinas called the bill “historic.”
“This commitment to equity by our state will help all Oregonians across the entire state access the healthcare they need when they need it,” she said.
HB 3159 aims to track healthcare inequities in various populations by requiring care providers and health insurers to collect data on race, ethnicity, language, disability sexual orientation, and gender identity of patients and clients.
HB 3294, the Menstrual Dignity Act, makes tampons and sanitary pads free at public schools, colleges, and universities.
“According to the Oregon Department of Education, over 21,000 students in Oregon were identified as homeless during the 2019-2020 school year,” Salinas said. “This investment in safety and comfort (for) our students will decrease absences and positively impact our most overlooked communities.”
HB 2362 gives the Oregon Health Authority the ability to weigh in on the consolidation of health care providers and entities, allowing the OHA to approve such mergers, approve them with conditions, or deny them.
“What this legislative body and the BIPOC Caucus have shown is that systemic inequities are a policy choice that we have the power to influence and change,” Salinas said.
“We chose change to help Oregonians thrive.”
HB 3069 implements “988” as an alternative to 911 when someone is suffering or reporting a mental health crisis. The bill was amended into HB 2417, which expands crisis stabilization services and expands rapid mobile response networks of care in the state.
“We hope this number will be on par with 911 in the future,” Sanchez said.
HB 2086 requires the Oregon Health Authority to increase reimbursement rates for co-occurring disorder treatment, and provides funding to start programs that ensure access to culturally specific and culturally responsive services.
HB 2949 requires the OHA to increase recruitment to and retention of the mental healthcare provider workforce, including through scholarships and loan repayment opportunities.
“This will add significant resources to education to focus on bringing communities of color and people from rural communities into the behavioral health field,” Sanchez said.
But there were items of “unfinished business” as well. Asked about their biggest disappointments during the session, many members preferred to reframe unsuccessful bills as top priorities in the upcoming session.
HB 2002 focused on restorative justice, and would have mitigated mandatory minimum sentences for non-murder felonies. It languished in the Ways and Means Committee
“We had some justice reinvestment policies in HB 2002 that came from a community process, so it included some Measure 11 reform, it also included some interactions with police reform,” Bynum said. “They seem very simple, maybe on their face, so like when and how and where police officers can stop you for a citation...I think the loss of that bill actually sets us up for a deeper conversation about who feels safe, how they feel safe, and who’s responsible for that safety.”
HB 3230, which would have created a program to provide universal legal representation on immigration matters through the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, was also unsuccessful.
“I think to engage with the legal system is very terrifying for many people, just regular, ordinary people,” Bynum said. “But imagine if you have a life-changing issue with your immigration status that you need help with.”
Bynum expressed similar frustration that a bill to extend overtime rights to agricultural workers did not pass this session.
“We’re talking about dismantling systems that were inherently unfair from the beginning.
"And how do we reconstitute a system that works for everyone?” Bynnum said. “People say oh hours will be cut, this economic system will change, that economic system will change. But fundamentally, we want to preserve the dignity of all workers. And make sure that people have enough time for rest, for play, for enjoying their families. And (then) life expectancy of farm workers is pushed upward, because we know they deal with additional stresses.”