PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – As Oregon’s 82nd legislative session gets underway on Tuesday, the legislature is already facing marching orders from Governor Tina Kotek to address the state’s homeless and affordable housing crises.
New Senate President Rob Wagner is among those tasked with handling the issue. Wagner, a Democrat from Lake Oswego, previously worked as a lobbyist and served as Senate majority leader. He succeeds Peter Courtney, who held the Senate President position for 20 years and was the longest-serving legislator in Oregon’s history.
The session begins after Kotek signed three executive orders on her first full day as Oregon’s chief executive — delivering on a campaign promise of declaring a homeless state of emergency.
During the executive order signing, Kotek said “We as a state, in our state agencies, have to prioritize this issue. Every agency is going to be put on notice that this is part of your mission as well — dealing with housing and homelessness, making sure there are no barriers to communities getting the help they need.”
Wagner called homelessness and housing affordability a huge issue.
“It’s probably the top issue that we’re going to be dealing with,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian crisis right now.”
Wagner added there’s a lot that legislators can be doing to head in the right direction.
“I think the governor stepping in on her first day, we’re ready to answer the call in the Senate,” he said. “The fact that she’s encouraging local governments, community non-profits, the private sector, trying to pull everybody together is the right move and we’re here to do our part to support the governor.”
Wagner described possible measures to address the crises, explaining, “you’re going to look at things around affordable housing, you’re going to see –what the governor’s stated– we need more affordable housing online, we need housing starts. So, what can we do around flexibility on that? And then ultimately, there is something about the fact that we have folks living on the street, unsheltered right now and we need to be doing a much better job addressing their concerns, providing wrap-around supports, providing shelter.”
Wagner also pointed to the need to make behavioral mental health services more accessible.
“You see it very visibly when you’re approached on the street, so there’s always that perception of this is what behavioral health issues are. It’s deeper than that. So, we have people in our communities across the state of Oregon that have had issues trying to access the behavioral mental health system…the pandemic has exacerbated a lot of that need.”
According to Wagner, lawmakers made “landmark investments” in behavioral mental health services but noted that “it takes time for those investments to actually make their way into community and especially to try to encourage people and provide more pathways for career opportunity providers. That’s going to be a big focus of what we’re going to be looking at this session.”
In terms of funding the resources to address homelessness and housing, Wagner noted the legislature may face difficulties in the potentially “softening economy.”
“Housing, behavioral health, some of these issues are really a crisis moment and I know that we’re going to try to make every effort we can to make strategic investments in those areas,” Wagner said.
Addressing the housing and homelessness crises comes as Oregon Democrats lost their supermajority in the 2022 mid-term election.
“It’s not necessarily just about the numbers,” Wagner said. “Nearly half of the legislature has never served in a session in person.”
He also spoke about the learning opportunities of hearing the experiences of people from across the state.
“I’m actually really excited about the ability for Democrats and Republicans to work together to try to solve issues that are of common purpose. And I think when you talk about housing, behavioral mental health, helping our rural communities with drought… those are issues that we can all lean in on together.”