By Katy Brooks, CEO, Bend Chamber
The 2021 legislative session was characterized by Zoom meetings, COVID-19 restrictions and disruptions. It was surprisingly productive, however. In a normal year, the legislative process is not one for the faint of heart, as over 3,500 bills are introduced in a long session addressing a vast range of issues.
This year’s session proved to be very different as lawmakers gathered virtually and the state Capitol was closed to the public due to COVID-19.
While the new format did make it easier to provide testimony in lieu of traveling across the pass to Salem, it presented challenges with the flow of information and the opportunity to communicate with elected officials.
All told this was a very challenging session for lawmakers and advocates alike. COVID-19 brought federal and state programs to the forefront this session for businesses and employees alike. Foreclosure moratoriums, federal unemployment assistance and financial support for businesses like the Paycheck Protection Program were intermingled with legislation and pandemic state guideline development. And while this was playing out, businesses were concerned about whether additional taxes would be levied in a year of struggle for so many. If there has ever been a year to advocate for supporting the health of our business community, this was it.
The ongoing and often-changing list of COVID-19 requirements on businesses has been challenging and at times detrimental. Businesses showed up this session to share their stories of struggle through the pandemic and successfully prevented several attempts to increase taxes. In the end, the legislature passed bipartisan bills to assist the business community, including changes to the state unemployment insurance trust fund to decrease accelerating unemployment rate increases due to COVID-19.
Also helpful was a delayed implementation of the Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance program that provides employers and the state more time to implement this new law, extending the deadline out a year to January 2023. And at this time legislation looks to be passing to bolster economic development by allowing local jurisdictions to temporarily suspend enterprise zone employment due to pandemic-related delays on construction.
This session saw a specific spotlight on the acute needs across Oregon to support people experiencing homelessness. The city of Bend received $2.5 million for a navigation center that provides services, in addition to $2 million from Rep. Jason Kropf’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation for a year-round, low -barrier shelter.
Central Oregon’s legislators also had a hand in bills that would create more housing. This, combined with a 2019 bill that creates more density via middle housing units such as duplexes, triplexes and cottage homes, is welcome legislation for our housing-starved community.
The lack of child care was highlighted in this year’s session.
Several bills took aim at helping ease the child care shortage across the state as families are trying to return to work and employers are trying to find enough labor to keep their doors open. One such effort was Rep. Jack Zika’s bill to ease regulations on where child care can be located and on regulatory barriers associated with operating a center. Lawmakers also considered a bill to create a new standalone Department of Early Learning to better coordinate the state’s early childhood education programs and streamline supporting services to child care providers and families.
The lack of child care is so astute that Sen. Tim Knopp included $1 million in his ARPA allocation to a pilot program at Oregon State University-Cascades and Central Oregon Community College that will fund a new child care program developed cooperatively by the two higher institutions and offered to students, faculty and the public. The program awaits final funding from Deschutes County.
And, late this session, the business community proposed promising ideas to improve the severe labor shortage that is hindering businesses in Central Oregon and across the state. The proposal would create an essential -worker stimulus payment to those who worked through COVID-19 and include a return-to-work hiring bonus to help lure people on unemployment payments back to work.
All told, the 2021 session can be chalked up as an unexpected success as progress has been made on key issues impacting our community and businesses get a break from new taxes for the time being. Our local lawmakers, Knopp, Kropf and Zika all played a significant role in helping to advocate for the needs of our community. We thank them for their steadfast support and leadership in what truly was a unique legislative session.
This article originally appeared in The Bulletin on June 20, 2021.