PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As Black History Month continues, the Oregon Legislature is considering a bill that would address what the ACLU has called an “ever-widening racial wealth gap for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities,” driven by over-policing, the criminal justice system, and the War on Drugs. 

The Legislature’s Senate ​Committee on Labor and Business held a preliminary hearing for the economic justice reform bill Tuesday, as part of the 2022 short session. 

SB 1579 or the Equity Investment Act, if passed, would create an Equity Investment fund, which would grant Business Oregon $50M every two years, to distribute funding to community-based organizations that support entrepreneurship, workforce development and increased access to land and homeownership for Oregon’s disproportionately underserved communities. 

“This is historic,” Jeannette Ward Horton, Equity Investment PAC Coalition Member & CEO of NuProject, said. “Setting aside this kind of ongoing funding for historically excluded communities just hasn’t been done yet, specifically for this purpose for closing this wealth gap.” 

As the CEO of NuProject, a Portland-based non-profit devoted to building generational wealth via the legal cannabis industry for Black and Brown communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs, Horton told KOIN 6 News this legislation is about financially correcting disparities that continue to impact the state’s most marginalized groups. 

“It really is about economic justice,” Horton told KOIN 6 News. “And the state of Oregon living its values and saying, ‘we see that there’s a community that’s been left behind, and we want to take some state resources and put it towards closing that wealth cap that we see and creating those economic paths to generational wealth for these communities who so badly need it.’”

Horton says the Equity Investment Act, carried by Senator Akasha Lawerence Spence and House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, has garnered support from a workgroup coalition of more than 100 legislators and community members. 

Shannon Vilhauer, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Oregon told KOIN 6 News the organization is fully behind the critical piece of legislation. 

“At Habitat for Humanity, we know firsthand that homeownership enables households in Oregon communities of all sizes to build intergenerational wealth,” Vilhauer stated. “Due to systemic injustices like redlining and disparate access to credit, Black, Indigenous and Latinx households have confronted unfair obstacles to homeownership in the United States… The Equity Investment Act represents a sea change in our ability to respond to Oregon’s diverse communities across the state with tangible solutions for a more stable, thriving Oregon.”

According to 2018 data from the Oregon Employment Department, the average wages for Black, American Indian, and Latinx workers ranged from $39,000 to $45,000 annually. While the average white worker earned at least $10,000 more.

Annual Average Wages by Race and Ethnicity, 2018 (Courtesy Oregon Employment Department)

“Mass incarceration and the war on drugs  — including the incarceration of people of color for marijuana crimes before marijuana was legalized — has contributed to the ever-widening racial wealth gap for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities,” ACLU Oregon stated. “The ultimate goal of SB 1579 is to help create greater community resiliency of historically-disenfranchised and harmed communities which will strengthen Oregon as a whole.”

SB 1579 is the workgroup’s second legislative attempt at reparative economic justice reform. Horton told KOIN 6 News the group first came together in 2020 to try and pass a bigger bill, which ultimately died. 

Despite the previous legislation failing, Horton believes now is the perfect time to pass the more direct and largely supported new bill. 

“We’re coming back again with a second bill that’s focused cleanly on this economic justice piece, and we believe we can get this done now,” Horton said. “COVID-19 continues to exacerbate economic conditions for these same communities. So, it can be done, and we know these legislators can do it.”

The bill was brought before the Senate Committee On Labor and Business, by Senator Akasha Lawrence Spence (D-Senate District 18) early Tuesday morning. Further testimony regarding SB 1579 is slated to be heard Thursday, Feb. 10. 

In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Representative Spence said, “The Equity Investment Act is a critical step in our states’ commitment to community-based economic stability and autonomy. Investing in our most vulnerable communities, both BIPOC and rural, through entrepreneurship, workforce development, home and land ownership, enables Oregonians to become self-sufficient, see their dollars circulate in their localities, foster resiliency in the face of economic shocks, and  increases Oregon’s capacity to grow thriving communities.”  

James Alan Parker (Chippewa-Cree), Executive Director at the Oregon Native American Chamber (ONAC) told KOIN 6 News, “We understand the importance of legislation and policy that looks to not only repair the harm impacted on our most vulnerable, but also looks to create economies that invest in those communities to better serve all Oregon citizens going forward.”

In a written statement to the Senate Committee On Labor and Business, Parker said, “When I look at this bill, I see a catalyst of change. I see a new kind of investment in Oregon’s citizens creating economies and structures that uphold community values rather than continue to extract capital and wealth from our most vulnerable and underserved. I see the opportunity for prosperity for those that have been marginalized and intentionally or unintentionally most harmed by policies and systemic inequities.”

A full list of the Equity Investment Act sponsors, including ONAC, can be viewed here.

While Horton is confident in the bill, she told KOIN 6 News the coalition is working on a tight deadline to get the legislation green-lit, due to the short session. 

“We have one month to move this bill quickly through a lot of toll gates and pass it, and we want these legislators to know the community believes this should happen,” Horton explained. “This matters. This needs to happen now. And if anyone wants to write their legislator and say you support this bill, please do.”

Donations for the bill can be submitted at the PAC website here

“When we invest in all communities, we invest in Oregon,” Horton said. “We’re at this moment in time where we can do something about that… We’ve got the state tax dollars that can really shift the dynamics and the future of Oregon, because this program is ongoing – that’s what makes it different. That’s what makes it so historic and has this ability to really grow capacity in serving our most historically underserved communities.”