PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Oregon’s 82nd legislative session began on Jan. 17 with lawmakers facing hundreds, and eventually thousands, of bills to consider as the state confronts housing and homelessness crises and a public defender shortage.

The House is also under new leadership as Dan Rayfield replaced now-Gov. Tina Kotek as House Speaker.

Embarking on this session, Rayfield says lawmakers’ main focus is to address housing and homelessness on top of improving the behavioral health system.

Additionally, on the Senate side, Senate President Rob Wagner told KOIN 6 News they are “ready to answer” Governor Kotek’s call after she signed three executive orders to address housing and homelessness.

Rayfield says lawmakers will take on these issues as they deal with a change in budget. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rayfield explained, the state received an influx of funding and has also received federal infrastructure funds — which will not be available in the upcoming session.

Rayfield said this “will cause use to prioritize and be very focused when we’re looking at making sure we have packages for housing and homelessness, making sure we have behavioral health packages, strengthening education.”

“We are committed to securing investments for our housing crisis in the first 60 days of this session. And those are really going to be focused on the immediacy within our housing, so think about the prevention side; preventing people from becoming houseless, taking care of the folks that are houseless now getting them sheltered,” Rayfield said.

In terms of the lack of affordable housing in Oregon, Rayfield says lawmakers will focus conversation on supply — adding that the state is underbuilt by more than 100,000 homes.

Addressing housing, homelessness and behavior health comes after Oregon Senate Democrats lost their supermajority hold and will require Republican support.

“The nice thing about this session — and I spent a lot of time during the campaigns reading campaign literature from Republicans, from Democrats — and everybody is focused on those same topics. So, that is this opportunity where we have unanimity where we need to focus,” Rayfield said. “This is a problem that is of the size where it’s going to take collaboration between all levels of government.”

Over the last two years, Oregon invested more than $1 billion in the behavioral health system, according to Rayfield, who points out the need to bolster the behavioral health workforce.

Taking more immediate action, Rayfield said Oregonians can expect to see legislative packages including crisis respite center investments, residential treatment facilities and the 988 crisis hotline to connect people in need to services.

Addressing Oregon’s public defender shortage

According to the House Speaker, the public defender shortage was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic, and says lawmakers are beginning the process to address this at the state level.

Rayfield says the legislature worked with Oregon’s executive and judicial branches to form a package for the upcoming legislative session to address the crisis — stating that it will be included in a legislative package.

“You want to think about this crisis in terms of accountability, making sure we’re getting what we’re paying for, you want to make sure we think about it in terms of outcomes, right? How do we improve outcomes from the attorney to the folks that they’re representing?” Rayfield said.

“During the last session in 2021, we actually withheld half of their budget because as a legislature, that’s our accountability mechanism and then we allocated that money later on,” Rayfield said. “And we’re starting to see some good direction there, but there’s a lot of work to be done and we will be passing a package this session to improve public defense.”

As lawmakers address housing, homelessness, behavioral health and the public defender shortage, Rayfield says there is a “unique opportunity” for bipartisanship.

“Nobody who comes in [the Oregon legislature] wants to have an education system that doesn’t provide the outcomes that we expect, nobody wants to have a housing or a homelessness crisis. That, again, is the focus where we try to assume good intent in each other’s actions. We’re going to disagree and we should expect that. But we can do that while fostering a culture of respect, moving forward to address these issues that we all agree upon,” Rayfield said.

He furthered “that is that unique opportunity we have this session because Democrats, Republicans are united on what are the biggest problems facing Oregon.”