On the final day of the 2023 legislative session, two Senate Republicans did something Oregon Republicans really hate to do—they voted for a new tax.
Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend) and Sen. Suzanne Weber (R-Tillamook) crossed the aisle to win passage of House Bill 2757, which will provide funding for a 988 suicide hotline service. The bill will charge 40 cents per phone line per month to fund the service, which is part of a national 988 effort aimed at reducing suicides.
The tax is expected to raise $33 million in the 2023-25 biennium and $54 million the biennium after that. It will fund call-takers (who can resolve 95% of calls without further assistance and some mobile crisis intervention).
Republicans’ aversion to new taxes is why it’s hard to pass a new tax in Salem—a 1996 ballot measure amended the Oregon Constitution to require a three-fifths majority of each chamber to do so.
And although some Senate Republicans returned June 15 from the longest walkout in state history, five remained out as the Legislature reached its final day. That left passage of HB 2757 in doubt, even after it passed the House on June 22 with the minimum 36 votes.
Knopp, who led the Senate walkout, acknowledged his general reluctance to support tax increases. “Normally, I would not vote [a tax increase],” he said before the vote, “but the question comes down to this: Are you willing to spend $5 a year to save lives?” He answered his own question. “I haven’t had a single person tell me they aren’t.”
Many in Salem note that Knopp, whose district became more Democratic in the 2020 redistricting (Democrats now hold a 9-point voter registration advantage), won’t stand for reelection next year, even if the Republicans’ challenge to Measure 113 succeeds. (That measure is aimed a disqualifying lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences per session.) That might shield him from consequences from the GOP base for his “yes” vote on a new tax, however well intentioned. Weber, who joined him in voting for the tax, doesn’t have to worry about Measure 113 or reelection until 2026, the year she turns 80.
Beyond political considerations, Chris Bouneff, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Oregon chapter, says the new funding, which will allow Lines for Life and Northwest Human Services to staff call centers serving the whole state, will make a big difference.
“This is one of the most consequential bills for improving behavioral health that the Oregon Legislature has ever passed,” Bouneff says. “This bill doesn’t just set lofty goals, it delivers resources to ensure we support people in crisis.”