Rent control, budget gap among issues legislators face

The Oregon Legislature convenes on February 1

Oregion House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, left, is joined by Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, during a legislative forum at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — With the Oregon Legislature set to convene on February 1, Republicans and Democrats will gather in Salem to decide how best to deal with the state’s $1.8 billion budget gap, whether to ditch the statewide ban on rent control and other pressing issues.

Oregon’s Budget

A budget framework for the 2017-2019 biennium was released on January 19 by the Co-Chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, and it detailed how Oregon’s incoming revenue is 8% lower than what’s needed at current levels.

The framework listed a number of spending categories where cuts would need to take place, including education and health care. Needless to say, the cuts would have a large impact on several departments and would lead to layoffs in schools, declining health insurance coverage for Oregonians covered by the Oregon Health Plan, declining state funding for TANF and more. Furthermore, cuts to state funding could trigger a reduction in federal funding, creating a much greater loss to programs.

After the framework was released, House Republican Caucus Budget Chair Greg Smith, R-Heppner, issued the following statement:

“Like many Oregonians, I am deeply frustrated by the financial situation our state finds itself in. It is difficult to comprehend that at the same time our state is taking in record tax revenues, we are being told we do not have enough money to pay our bills.”

Smith went on to say House Republicans “stand ready” to work with Democrats in order to deliver on a budget that’ll acknowledge the need for spending reform.

Gov. Kate Brown unveiled her budget in December 2016, focusing on education, health care and job growth.

She proposed closing a loophole in so-called pass-through taxes, increasing a tobacco tax and discarding the customary increases in budgets for state universities and community colleges. Her budget will also look for inefficiencies, including keeping vacant state jobs open for 60 days and eliminating non-mandatory travel for state employees. Together, cuts and revenue increases are expected to address the current $1.8 billion gap.

Statewide Ban on Rent Control

With rent prices in Portland continuing to climb, many in the Rose City (like Commissioner Chloe Eudaly) are calling for quick action to protect renters. In November 2016, Eudaly called for a rent freeze and an end to no-cause evictions. A poll in September 2016 found 52% of Oregonians support repealing the statewide ban on rent control.

In response to these calls for action, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, filed House Bill 2001 to repeal Oregon’s ban on city and county ordinances regulating rents. Her bill also aims to allow cities and counties to adopt rent stabilization programs (with certain restrictions) and impose a temporary moratorium on rent increases greater than 5% for residential tenancies (with some exceptions).

The House Speaker announced that she supported a state limit on rent increases and banning no-cause evictions at the state level back in September 2016.

A similar bill, sponsored by multiple representatives, also seeks to allow cities and counties to create ordinances regulating rent. Like Kotek’s legislation, House Bill 2003 would also repeal ORS 91.225 (the legislation prohibiting local rent control). House Bill 2003 differs, in that it doesn’t contain a cap on rent increases.

Both bills will face opposition from House Republicans.

A spokesman for House Republicans told KOIN 6 News more government intrusion into the marketplace wasn’t the answer to high rent prices. House Republicans said although rent control is potentially beneficial in the very short-term, it has proven to have negative impacts in the long-term. They cite a consensus among economists that rent control doesn’t produce the results it aims to achieve.

House Republicans believe that high rent prices are a result of a “basic breakdown in the laws of supply and demand” and suggest relieving pressure by incentivizing the development and construction of affordable units, to increase supply and lower demand.

Rural Communities

House Republicans said they want to prioritize rural Oregon during this legislative session by “forcing the majority party to be mindful of the impact of new laws on rural communities” and “advocating for policies that will help incentivize economic growth in rural Oregon.”

Despite the Portland-metro area having recovered from the depths of the great recession, some rural communities have not yet bounced back.

Rural Oregon still has a high unemployment rate, lower annual incomes for its workforce and downward demographic trends, according to the State of Oregon Employment Department.

Kotek also mentioned rural communities in her opening day remarks, saying “Despite these successes, we have more work to do to build an economy that creates equal opportunity for all. We cannot leave our rural communities behind as the state’s economy grows.”

She went on to speak on equal pay for women and supporting working families through affordable child care and policies that’ll allow workers to care for family members.

Justice and Ethics

In 2015, Oregon outlawed profiling by law enforcement based on race, ethnicity or other characteristics.

Kotek said she wants to “take the next steps” down that road, including setting up data collection, policies and training necessary to further cut down on profiling.

She also wants the legislature to consider reforms to how people are charged for certain drug offenses, how grand juries operate and to adequately fund public defense and increase support for legal assistance in civil cases.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are drafting legislation to limit the number of Salem employees that move from influential government positions to eventually turning into lobbyists that interact with the government, as well as the reverse.

The legislature will also have a number of other important issues to tackle, and it all begins in just over a week.