As the state legislature kicked off its 2023 regular session last week, Oregon’s Democrat lawmakers outlined their priorities for the coming four months by highlighting goals particularly impactful to BIPOC Oregonians, including state universal healthcare, ending violent disciplinary practices disproportionately affecting students of color and students with disabilities, producing a higher volume of affordable housing and better educating all law enforcement officers.
“We’re facing unprecedented challenges: From our homelessness crisis, community safety concerns, climate change and wildfires, rising prices that make it harder for Oregonians to pay their bills, workforce challenges – including access to high-quality, affordable childcare,” Sen. Kate Lieber (D-Beaverton) said.
Sen. James Manning (D-Eugene) perhaps best personified this session’s wide range of priorities as chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans, Emergency Management, Federal and World Affairs.
“That gives me quite a bit of latitude on the number of measures that our committee can possibly hear,” Manning said. “But what I want to talk about today is the big elephant that’s over the big building: Healthcare.”
Manning is chief co-sponsor of Senate Bill 704 would establish a Universal Health Plan Governance Board with a goal of implementing a state universal health plan starting in 2027.
“Currently our healthcare system in our state loses over a billion dollars a year in unrelated direct healthcare costs,” Manning said.
“My bill, under the concept of universal healthcare, will actually save a billion dollars a year…This universal health care system will cover everyone. That means opportunity for economic growth and development, and it provides an opportunity to attract outside businesses to come to Oregon.”
Manning added that he witnessed the efficacy of universal healthcare during his time serving in the military.
“It will guarantee that we can get people off to a new start in preventative healthcare measures, saving tons of dollars, and more importantly, saving tons of life here in our great state,” he said of the bill.
Sen. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland), chair of the Senate Education Committee, outlined the goals of recruiting a more diverse workforce within the state public school system, with a particular focus on hiring special education teachers and staff in part by “removing some of the bureaucratic hurdles that are there for people who want to become teachers.”
Meanwhile, Senate Committee on Human Services chair Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin (D-Corvallis) focused on “issues impacting kids that flow over into the human services area” and in education.
“Oregon is failing to keep its promise to Oregon children in need,” Gelser Blouin said.
“In violation of many well-established state and federal laws, over a thousand Oregon students ages five to 21 find the doors to the public schoolhouse shut in their faces simply because they have Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, autism, or other disabilities.”
She added, “In addition, students across the state are frequently violently restrained or secluded at school in violation of state law, leading to hundreds of documented injuries reported to the Department of Education, to children as young as five. These injuries include head injuries, lost teeth, severe pain and emotional trauma. These children are disproportionately Black and Brown and experiencing poverty, and almost every single one of them without exception is disabled.”
To address the emergency, Gelser Blouin said Democrats would fight to give the state Department of Education the authority – and mandate – to “monitor and enforce state and federal laws swiftly, and with students at the center.”
“We will give the Department of Human Services better tools to carry out their statutory responsibilities to investigate abuse in schools and ensure districts actually comply with these investigations,” she said. “We will also strengthen training and enforcement around restraint and seclusion at school to substantially reduce these violent interventions, and stop the injuries that children as young as five are regularly suffering,” she said, detailing the case of a six-year-old student who had received dozens of injuries in a single school year.
Sen. Kayse Jama (D-Portland) highlighted his party’s commitment to an “immediate and continued response to address affordable housing, as well as the crisis of homelessness in our streets.”
Jama stated that the Democrats’ housing priorities included keeping people in their homes to slow the growth of the unhoused population in Oregon; providing housing and wraparound services in order to break cycles of homelessness and housing insecurity; removing bureaucratic “red tape” in order to allow easier access to financing and building the 500,000 new housing units Oregon is estimated to need – including 170,000 affordable units; expanding home ownership opportunities; and working to increase public safety and “reclaim public spaces to make communities safer and welcoming and improve quality of life.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, announced his group had already introduced more than 100 bills.
“We are working on improving the Oregon public defense system and services provided for those who are eligible for receiving public defense services,” Prozanski said. In December, the state judicial department reported 709 people in the state had been charged with a crime but lacked the constitutionally guaranteed representation of a public defender.
Prozanski also reiterated the committee’s dedication to the voter-approved Measure 114, which introduces a number of gun control measures, some of them unprecedented in the U.S. The measure has yet to go into effect as it has been challenged by a state judge. Prozanski also acknowledged that the voter-approved Measure 110 to decriminalize some controlled substances and to provide better addiction treatment, would still need work, in a nod to its rocky rollout last year.
Prozanski further emphasized the shortage of public defenders throughout Oregon in light of the Oregon Supreme Court's Romos decision late last year, which gives those who remain incarcerated due to non-unanimous jury rulings the right to have their cases reviewed.
In summation, Lieber sounded the alarm on recent and ongoing attacks on voter rights.
“We need to safeguard our democracy,” Lieber said.
“That means working hand-in-hand with our election officials to maintain our voter participation and ensure every Oregon voter has fair access to elections. We need to pursue campaign finance reform, and we need to be vigilant watch dogs.”
Bills of note whose chief sponsors are members of the legislature’s BIPOC Caucus: