Oregon lawmakers approve $30 million to purchase motels and hotels as shelters in wildfire areas, zero for the rest of the state

Oregon lawmakers voted on Friday to distribute $30 million from the state general fund to community groups and local governments so they can buy motels and hotels to serve as shelters for people whose homes burned in recent wildfires.

It was an unusually emotional and confrontational virtual committee meeting, with Republicans and even some Democrats clashing with other Democrats over whether to spend an additional $35 million so that local groups and governments could also purchase motels and hotels as shelters for people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Critics of spending the total $65 million requested argued there were too few details, that the plan was rushed to a vote without enough time for lawmakers to research it and that such a large amount would normally undergo much more scrutiny during a regular or special legislative session. They pointed out Gov. Kate Brown could call the Legislature into a third special session soon after the Nov. 3 election. The Legislative Emergency Board that voted on the money requests Friday typically makes necessary budget adjustments between sessions but during the pandemic it has taken on a more significant role in doling out money.

In the end, the votes left lawmakers from the Portland area where a recent OPB poll showed homelessness remains voters’ top concern relatively empty-handed, while legislators from wildfire ravaged areas including Republicans might soon see millions of dollars go to projects in their districts.

Rep. Rob Nosse, whose district covers inner northeast and southeast Portland where many people live on sidewalks and other public spaces, pleaded for his fellow lawmakers to support the project to be overseen by the Oregon Community Foundation. Portland is “ground zero” for homelessness in the state, Nosse said. “I really am begging you right now to reconsider your opposition given the need.”

House Speaker Tina Kotek, of North Portland, asked her colleagues to be “intellectually consistent” and either vote for both or neither of the proposals. Oregonians without homes urgently need help and “to wait to do more process doesn’t seem the right thing to do,” Kotek said.

Kotek also disagreed with Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, a Democrat whose district covers Northwest Portland and Beaverton. Steiner Hayward is a co-chair of the Ways and Means committee.

Steiner Hayward said she was torn between her “fiduciary responsibility” as a top budget writer anticipating a large state budget shortfall in 2021 and the people she sees in her neighborhood sleeping in tents or in the open.

“Those are things that keep me awake at night,” Steiner Hayward said. She said 2020 has already brought one crisis after another and it “is dangerous” to spend so much taxpayer money at a time right now. Steiner Hayward said she had asked supporters of the plan to reduce their request, because she would have supported a smaller amount.

Several hours into the hearing, Kotek grew impatient listening to other Democrats explain their opposition. “You know what’s hard? Being homeless,” said the usually reserved Kotek.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Scappoose Democrat who is also a co-chair of the Ways and Means committee, lobbed question after question at supporters and joined Steiner Hayward in voting against both the statewide and wildfire sections of the proposal.

“We’re going to plunk down $65 million on something that remains so incredibly vague,” Johnson said.

In the end, three Republicans on the committee joined most Democrats to approve the $30 million for shelters for people displaced by wildfires. “There is a need, I absolutely support the need,” said Sen. Lynn Findley, a Republican whose district covers a vast portion of eastern and central Oregon.

— Hillary Borrud | [email protected] | 503-294-4034 | @hborrud

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