The Board of County Commissioners approved its 2021 Legislative Agenda on Thursday, Dec. 10, prioritizing relief for residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, investing further in public health, eliminating racial disparities in the public safety system, and raising new revenue.
This year’s Regular Legislative Session, which begins Jan. 19, 2021, is expected to be unlike any other--even the location of this year’s session is to be determined. The pandemic has hit Oregonians hard, worsening need in health, housing, education, and income. And effects of COVID-19 have deepened disparities already felt by Black, Indigenous and People of Color and vulnerable communities.
Earlier this year, leaders feared the pandemic would lead to drastic budget cuts. In reality, the budget situation is much better than expected with $2.5 billion in state reserves. However, forecasters are uncertain about how additional lockdowns will affect the state budget. The state budget relies heavily on personal income taxes and, while higher income earners have done well, those with lower incomes are doing worse.
Adding to the uncertainty is how the federal government will act in the coming months. Congress is currently under pressure to pass another stimulus package. One of the sticking points is more funding for state and local governments. A new package might also extend CARES Act funding after Jan. 1, which may give municipalities more leeway but would not provide more services.
“As we have talked to the Legislature, we really do talk about that we are seeing an unprecedented need out there,” said Government Relations Director Jeston Black. “First and foremost, we want to keep a solid foundation of safety net services.”
Budget priorities for the 2021 Legislative Session
The pandemic has underscored just how critical physical health, behavioral health, housing and food security are for everyone. County has singled out the following priorities, with an emphasis on BIPOC communities, as it aims to preserve safety net services:
Behavioral Health Services
Intellectual and Developmental Disability Services
Older Adult Supports
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victim Services
The isolating effects of the pandemic, and its impacts on the local economy, have worsened mental health and addiction issues. Because of that, the County supports the Governor’s recommendations for more investments in peer respite, supportive housing, and the behavioral health workforce. And when the eviction moratorium ends, there will be a need for permanent supportive housing.
“We have all seen, especially in the Metro area, that you can get money to build things, but actually, having the funding to keep people in their apartment or keep people in their house is a much harder thing to do,” Black said. “It is a longer term ask, but this is how you help get people back on their feet and to lead their best lives.”
Domestic violence services co-located in State Department of Human Services offices, are also among the County’s budget priorities. These advocates help connect DV survivors who may be seeking food assistance or other services, who need help out of a bad situation.
The County will also be advocating for more services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In the last biennium, the State only funded 83 percent of services for individuals with developmental disabilities that the County provides. As a result, the County has to offset some of the costs for the State, and caseloads are too high. The County aims to fund more than 90 percent of funding from the State.
Public health modernization is another legislative priority. The pandemic has both shown the importance of a robust public health system and severely strained public health infrastructure. The Governor’s budget includes $30 million for public health, but health experts say more is needed to achieve a robust public health system. The County is aiming for an additional $68 million per biennium statewide.
“You have to fund public health modernization,” Black said. “This has been a six year effort to increase funding for public health so we can be prepared to deal with public health crises like we are right now.”
Advancing Multnomah County bills
Beyond funding for Multnomah County services, the County will also advocate for changes to public policy. A handful of County-sponsored bills would help advance equity, health, human services & housing, good government, justice, and revenue. The bills include:
Remove supervision fees and provide better education to juveniles in detention.
Curb “predatory tactics” by brokers and developers to protect homeowners & prevent further gentrification.
Require state agencies to do a racial equity analysis for new proposed administrative rules.
Health, human services & housing
Enable county collaboration to respond to, and prevent, youth suicide
Increase communication and collaboration with DHS workload analyses.
Expand regulation of tobacco sales to curb use through retail licensure, increased taxes and flavor bans.
Support efforts to reduce harmful emissions and clean up the environment.
Protect public health and clean up parks and streets through proper disposal of sharps.
Fight poverty with jobs, training, cash and food assistance programs and needed services.
Support low income families through income-based utility rate discounts.
Ensure County Animal Services can protect public health and provide flexibility to dog owners in the licensing process.
Increase flexibility and functionality at the East County Courthouse.
Support protections for sex trafficking victims.
Ensure utilities pay their fair share when accessing the county right of way.
Remove Measure 5 & 50 from the constitution, or other means to increase fairness though property tax reform.
“We have been working closely with a number of coalition partners on a whole host of bills that we hope to support efforts in,” Deputy Government Relations Director Sarah Lochner said. “As a safety net provider the county usually supports increases to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, additional rent assistance, food assistance, weatherization, and other programs that help struggling folks get back on their feet, and we would like to support these types of programs again.”
Commissioners affirm legislative agenda
Multnomah County commissioners showed support for this year’s legislative agenda and called out several priorities. Those included expanded diesel regulation, support for sex trafficking victims, fixing the property tax system, advancing equity and addressing systemic racism, removing parole & probation fees, and improving the East County Courthouse.
“This has been a more challenging year than most, and I just feel so appreciative of the representation that we have at the state level,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.
“I am glad to see that we have such a strong agenda in fighting for the values that we have at Multnomah County,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “I think that there is a lot that we need to get done and have a really good session for that.”
“I think it is critically important we look at the impacts of our policies and our rules,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann. “Multnomah County often leads and maybe we can encourage our other state and federal partners to join us.”
“We are very excited about the upcoming session,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “We would like an emergency session in between so that we can address some important issues related to COVID, including extending the eviction moratorium. so we can’t let them off the hook yet.”