Oregon Hate Crime Reform Bill Hits a Stumbling Block in Salem

"It would be a tragedy if we allowed another year to go by without providing necessary and adequate protections to Oregonians who have been the victims of bias crimes.”

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward. (Justin Katigbak)

A bill that would strengthen Oregon's hate crime statute appears frozen in Salem, after receiving backing from civil rights advocates and many elected officials.

Emails reviewed by WW say the hate-crime legislation is not on a list of bills to be funded in 2019 and is at risk of stalling out in the budget process.

It's not clear why legislators have not prioritized the bill. But advocates are anxiously urging lawmakers to revive the legislation before the clock runs out this week.

The Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent an open letter to the legislators who head the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, where the bill sits awaiting another hearing. Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward (D-Beaverton) and Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) chair the Ways and Means committee and have control over the bill's fate.

"We are confounded that you do not currently support SB 577 and are not currently viewing it as a top priority," the letter says.

The bill would likely need to be moved into the public safety subcommittee in Ways and Means in the next few days to have a chance of passing. The legislation has support of many high-ranking Democrat officials, including Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who requested the bill be proposed this session. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the co-owner of WW's parent company.)

"This is a top priority for me this session," says House Majority Leader Jenifer Williamson (D-Portland). "Though I am concerned about its fate right now, I am continuing to fight for its passage. It would be a tragedy if we allowed another year to go by without providing necessary and adequate protections to Oregonians who have been the victims of bias crimes."

At a public hearing in March, the bill had no registered opposition.

Senate Bill 577 would make committing a bias-motivated crime a felony under Oregon law. Intimidation, which is the charge created in Oregon's hate crime statute, is currently a misdemeanor offense.

The bill would add gender identity to the list of protected traits in Oregon. It would also require the state to track hate crimes more consistently.

The bill would allocate about $670,000 to fighting hate and establish a dedicated hate crimes hotline for victims, among other things. A supplemental proposal asks for an additional $1.2 million in funding to establish other anti-hate measures, but the legislation could still pass without that funding.

"Senate Bill 577 represents two years of hard work and consensus building by a broad range of stakeholders," says Williamson, who is a co-sponsor of the bill. "This comprehensive legislation is vital to making sure every Oregonian has equal access to justice. By all measures, this would be among the strongest bias crime laws in the country."

Civil rights advocacy group Unite Oregon also sent a letter to legislators asking for the bill to be prioritized.

"We're ashamed to say that we are one of the national hotspots for hate crimes and bias incidents," Unite Oregon's letter says. "There is a crisis of hate in Oregon, and we must confront it."

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