Public safety bills, budgets await action amid Republican Senate walkout 

Oregon lawmakers have worked to advance bills that would help people fight opioid overdoses, provide more public defenders to impoverished criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney and give more compensation and help to crime victims.

Now those proposals – and other parts of the Legislature’s public safety agenda – face a roadblock: the GOP-led walkout in the Senate, which started May 3. Democratic lawmakers warned Wednesday that bills to address growing crises across Oregon will die if Republican senators don’t return to the Senate floor.

Much is at stake for Oregonians: Nearly 300 people are sitting in jail with pending criminal charges and don’t have a defense attorney assigned to them. Hundreds of Oregonians die every year from opioid overdoses. 

“Senate Republicans left before we finished the job,” Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, said in a statement. “This is a real opportunity for bipartisan cooperation, but we won’t have it if they don’t come back in time to ensure every bill goes through the proper, public process.”

Republican senators have said they are willing to return on June 25 – the last day of the session – to pass bipartisan budgets and bills. But Gov. Tina Kotek and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, have said that’s unacceptable.

In an interview with the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday, Knopp discounted the warning as political posturing.

“That’s all theater from them,” Knopp said. “None of that stuff is in any jeopardy as long as they don’t try to shut down the government, which is what they’ve threatened to do if they don’t get their way.”

At this point, negotiations between Senate Republicans and Democrats have failed to show any visible signs of headway. Kotek has said she’ll call a special session to pass the budget if necessary, which would happen at some point beyond June 25.

For now, it’s unknown what will come of policy bills if the impasse in the Senate continues.

Some of those proposals include: 

  • House Bill 2676 would expand the state’s program that compensates crime victims and help with the costs of medical expenses and mental health services. For example, the bill would provide counseling services to a person who witnesses the death of a crime victim.
  • Senate Bill 318 would provide funding to help state and local law enforcement agencies coordinate efforts to fight organized retail theft rings.
  • House Bill 2719 would require defendants in sexual assault cases to get tested for HIV within 48 hours of their arraignment. The proposal is intended to provide information to victims sooner.
  • House Bill 2572 is intended to deter political violence and paramilitary activity. It would allow the attorney general to file a civil action against groups that use intimidation or threats to prevent lawful activities, such as voting. The bill also would allow private citizens to sue a paramilitary group.
  • House Bill 2316 would expand the offense of driving under the influence to include any impairing drugs. Most drugs are already covered by the law, but prescription and herbal drugs are not.

Republican senators are opposed to two bills in the Democratic-backed package of public safety measures.  One is House Bill 2005, which would raise the minimum age to purchase most firearms from 18 to 21 years old, ban firearms that don’t have serial numbers and allow local agencies to ban firearms on government-owned property. 

The other is House Bill 2395, which would provide naloxone kits in public buildings and for emergency responders to give people to block the effect of opioid overdoses. Republican senators want to amend this bill because it would allow minors to get addiction treatment without their parent’s knowledge or consent. They support an amendment that would allow a minor to petition the court if their parent does not or cannot consent to their treatment.

Public safety budget details

Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday also released the broad strokes of a proposed $4 billion public safety budget for the next two years. That would pump about $2 billion annually into different areas.

The framework includes: 

  • $813 million for the Oregon Department of Justice, which includes programs to help victims of human trafficking, crime victims and programs to prevent violence in communities.
  • $611 million for Oregon State Police, which includes recruitment and retention of staff, technology improvements at the 9-1-1 command center and ongoing work to process applications for firearm ownership.
  • $83 million to help the Department of Public Safety and Safety Standards and Training prepare more law enforcement officers to address the shortage of police officers.
  • $2.2 billion for the Oregon Department of Corrections, which includes money for security upgrades at prisons and more addiction treatment for inmates.
  • $750.7 million for the Oregon Judicial Department, which funds the circuit court systems in the state’s 36 counties and pays for various programs, including one that helps people expunge low-level marijuana possession convictions.

“The people of Oregon were loud and clear that making our streets and communities safer must be one of our top priorities this session,” Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said in a statement. “With this package, we are taking direct aim at the root causes of crime and improving law enforcement response to ensure every Oregonian feels safe and secure wherever they live in our state.”

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.