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Golden details legislative work on housing, other issues

Mail Tribune/file photo The Oregon Legislature appropriated $400 million this year for housing and homelessness issues, including money to turn hotels into apartments.
Oregon Legislature wrapped up session in March

State Sen. Jeff Golden recounted this year’s jam-packed session of the Oregon Legislature during a town hall meeting held online and in-person at the Medford library this week.

He said Oregon legislators normally hold long sessions on odd-numbered years and short sessions to make adjustments on even-numbered years.

“That’s not how it was this year. We did a lot of things,” Golden said of the 2022 short session that wrapped up in early March.

The Oregon Legislature had an unprecedented infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the federal government because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Legislators put the biggest chunk — $400 million — toward affordable housing and efforts to reduce homelessness. Oregon faces a problem of wages lagging behind the skyrocketing cost of renting an apartment or buying a house, Golden said.

He said the state has never been able to afford such a serious investment before.

Jeff Golden

Golden said Oregon is facing more extreme weather, including temperatures hitting a record 116 degrees in Portland in 2021.

Medford reached a record-tying 115 degrees last year.

“We’re in a whole new era now — and this won’t be the last time,” Golden said.

Legislators passed a right-to-cool package that gives renters the right to use window-mounted air conditioners. They also put money toward turning places such as fairgrounds and school cafeterias into shelters to escape heat and wildfire smoke.

Summer school and child care will get a boost with $150 million in funding from the Legislature. Golden said some people haven’t been able to return to work because there aren’t enough child care openings and care is too expensive in Oregon.

The most controversial bill of the short session was granting overtime pay to farm workers, who have been excluded from overtime pay for decades in Oregon. Most workers earn 1.5 times their normal hourly wage for all hours they work beyond 40 hours per week.

Golden said farmworkers have suffered from heat, smoke and COVID-19 while laboring to grow and harvest food, all without the overtime pay granted to other workers in the state. But on the other side, family farms are struggling with water shortages, extra COVID-19-related costs, competition from corporations, heat extremes and the proliferation of illegal marijuana grows.

“Something bad was going to happen no matter which way you voted on this bill,” Golden said of the overtime legislation.

He said the Oregon Legislature compromised by designating $50 million in tax credits to cover overtime for farms with fewer than 25 workers. The tax credit shrinks from 90% of overtime costs to 10% of costs over six years.

The overtime pay requirement also phases in over five years, starting with a requirement to pay time-and-a-half after 55 hours per week and gradually ratcheting down to overtime pay after 40 hours per week in 2027, according to the legislation.

California and Washington are also phasing in overtime pay for farm workers.

The Oregon Legislature reached another compromise by allowing counties to request a temporary moratorium on new hemp licenses issued by the state, rather than enacting a statewide moratorium. Jackson and Josephine counties have already requested moratoriums, Golden said.

Regulatory and law enforcement agencies haven’t been able to keep up with the explosion of illegal marijuana grows masquerading as hemp in Southern Oregon. They can’t tell the two plants apart without doing tests.

Marijuana is legal to grow in Oregon, but people must follow a host of regulations. It remains illegal at the federal level. Hemp, which doesn’t contain high levels of THC, the ingredient in marijuana that gets users high, is legal nationwide and comes with far fewer regulations.

Golden said the Oregon Legislature is putting money toward more enforcement plus help for exploited workers.

After the 2020 Almeda fire destroyed 2,500 homes, primarily in Talent and Phoenix, the Phoenix-Talent School District lost 700 students who had to find somewhere else to live, Golden said.

He credited State Rep. Pam Marsh with championing a bill that gives state funding to fire-impacted school districts. The state traditionally provides education funding based on student counts, so losing kids damages districts financially.

The Oregon Legislature allocated $13.6 million for Phoenix to construct a multi-use building for city hall, police and Jackson County Fire District No. 5. A $75.8 million Medford aquatics and sports complex hit by cost overruns got $3 million from legislators.

Golden said the Legislature invested in workforce training and community colleges.

“We have been making a huge mistake by not funding community colleges,” he said, noting they offer career education and training that helps families be self-sufficient.

During the town hall meeting, residents raised concerns about the proliferation of plastic from cannabis grows in Sams Valley, lifted pickup trucks with big tires that pose dangers to smaller cars on the road, urban wildfires, mental health, addiction and a lack of irrigation water.

Golden said the state is helping to fund better emergency alert systems, mental health care and addiction recovery services, plus more water-efficient irrigation systems.

A Democrat, Golden is running for re-election for District 3 in the Oregon Senate. The area includes Medford, Phoenix, Talent, Ashland, Jacksonville part of the Applegate Valley and the Greensprings area.

Medford Mayor Randy Sparacino will run in the Republican primary against Kevin Christman of Talent in May for the right to face Golden in November.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.