Republican Senators in Oregon are staging a “walkout” from the Democrat-controlled state legislature. The move, framed as a protest against Democrat-led bills on abortion and transgender rights, comes just as lawmakers are negotiating a state budget for the next two years. If the walkout continues, it’s possible that thousands of Oregonians could risk losing longer-term access to life-saving drug treatment services and supports under the state’s decriminalization law; and it’s certain that immediate further harm reduction reforms could be blocked.
The Republican tactic began on May 3, seemingly prompted by House Bill 2002, which protects abortion patients or providers who are sued in other states that restrict the procedure; requires public colleges to provide emergency contraception and medication abortion through student health centers; and requires insurance companies to cover gender-affirming care.
As the Associated Press reports, Republicans are exploiting a state law that requires two-thirds of legislators be present to advance any bills. However, a separate law—Measure 113, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2022—forbids politicians from running for re-election if they have more than 10 unexcused absences, putting pressure on the absent senators.
The current legislative session ends on June 25, which is the deadline to pass a two-year state budget. Republicans have stated by email that they will return that day to pass any necessary bills—but Democrats say a single day wouldn’t leave enough time to get through everything. As the standoff continues, it threatens legislative priorities like education and gun control.
Drug policy is also high on that list. In recent years, Oregon has been a national leader in scaling back the drug war. Most notably, voters approved Measure 110 in 2020, to decriminalize personal possession of all drugs. The measure also funded vital services—and lawmakers need to appropriate money to ensure that keeps happening.
Measure 110 promised to use a portion of tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to increase and fund resources to support people who use drugs—including treatment, overdose prevention and housing. Despite attacks from politicians and police, the initiative still enjoys support from a majority of voters, has reduced drug-related arrests, has not led to an increase in 911 emergency calls or overall crime, and has expanded life-saving services through hundreds of providers to thousands of people who didn’t have it before.
“The bills will die if the GOP doesn’t come back. Those are the biggest threats, at least in our world.”
The Senate conflict now could complicate efforts to continue implementing these reforms—and to progress further.
Tera Hurst, executive director of the Health Justice Recovery Alliance, told Filter that her organization has successfully lobbied to advance two bills this session: House Bill 2395, to decriminalize harm reduction supplies, including syringes and fentanyl test strips; and HB 2513, to make important changes related to the Measure 110 funding program, to improve local coordination of services and change how community providers can apply for and receive grants.
Both those bills passed through the House with overwhelming support, but are now stalled in the Senate. So the immediate threat is that if lawmakers don’t vote on the bills this month, advocates will have to wait until at least February 2024 before they can get another hearing.
“[The bills] will die if the GOP doesn’t come back. Those are the biggest threats, at least in our world,” Hurst said.
“The funding is still going to providers, we’re not on a cliff right now, that’s the good news.”
As for the actual funding for treatment and harm reduction services under Measure 110, it’s complicated. Currently, these services have money through the end of 2023.
“The funding is still going to providers, we’re not on a cliff right now, that’s the good news,” Hurst said. “Everybody would like certainty but ultimately we’re not looking at any services that would have to go offline or be threatened at this moment.”
But for that to continue in the longer term, the legislature must approve a state budget that includes the Oregon Health Authority’s (OHA) full budget.
If lawmakers don’t agree on a budget by June 25, however, Governor Tina Kotek (D) could choose to call a special session to ensure that a budget is in place by September.
In either scenario, lawmakers could well negotiate and agree to cut funding in certain areas—possibly including drug treatment and harm reduction. But is that likely?
“There’s nothing out of the realm of possibility, but it doesn’t seem to be where the focus is,” Hurst said. “For the most part, we have bipartisan support for the services being offered in every county because everyone is impacted by substance use and addiction. Nothing is impossible but … the bills Republicans are trying to stop are issues that are very political to their base.”
“It makes me really sad to think of all the people who came out to change things for the better for our community, and that just gets erased.”
One way or another, the Republican senators will have to return—either this month or later this year—to pass a budget. But their walkout could effectively put paid to new harm reduction bills and others.
Republicans have used this tactic repeatedly in the past few years; this time, with Measure 113 in place, they could be risking their political careers to do so. But Hurst said the long-term solution to avoid a repeat of this situation has to involve repealing the two-thirds quorum requirement in the Senate that even makes this an option for a minority party.
“It’s not just our bills—a lot of really good policy work went into this session,” she said. “It makes me really sad to think of all the people who came out to testify and advocate to change things for the better for our community, and that just gets erased.”