Gov. Kate Brown will call a special legislative session for Aug. 10, in order to close a $1.2 billion budget gap brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Putting off tough decisions this summer will only leave us with impossible choices next January,” Brown said in a statement, referring to the regular legislative session scheduled for next year. “Unlike the federal government, Oregon must balance our state budget.”
While details are still being debated, the session Brown announced Friday also could take up an array of new bills aimed at curbing police abuses, along with the subject of whether businesses should be protected from coronavirus-related lawsuits. The likelihood those bills will be introduced appeared diminished Friday afternoon, however, when the leading Democrat and Republican in the Senate each signaled they hoped to stick to budget matters.
The session will mark the second time lawmakers have convened this summer in order to address pressing concerns brought about by COVID-19. In late June, the Legislature passed 22 bills in a whirlwind three days that bore little resemblance to most special sessions, which tend to be carefully choreographed.
The August session will likely have clearer priorities. With tax revenues plummeting amid layoffs and business closures, lawmakers need to close a $1.2 billion hole in the current budget. Under a framework released earlier this month, that could involve closing two state prisons, though many savings state budget writers have identified are far less dramatic. Budget subcommittees met in hearings last week to hear testimony on those proposals.
Still uncertain is whether legislators will take up issues that could involve far more debate.
A special committee charged with looking into police reforms has been working up a slate of bills that could bolster limits on tear gas and chokeholds, and fundamentally change the system by which police discipline cases are settled. Hearings this week have suggested there’s little consensus on some of those proposals.
The Legislature also could take up proposals for how liable businesses are when customers or employees are sickened with COVID-19. After mounting pressure in June, a work group has been looking at whether to grant liability protections against lawsuits in such cases, a concept that has strong support in the Oregon House.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, has also voiced support for a proposal by labor unions to grant workers’ compensation payments to people who’ve come down with COVID-19 while being required to go to work, regardless of whether there is proof they contracted the disease in the workplace.
But Democrats could see push back if they try to bring those priorities up for consideration in a special session. Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, suggested Friday Republican senators would bristle at bills that extend beyond the budget.
“Senate Republicans have been willing to work on the budget since before the governor called the first special session earlier this summer,” Girod said, “If we diverge from the stated purpose of addressing the budget, this second special session will make a mockery of the legislative process yet again.”
Girod appears to have agreement from Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who issued a statement indicating he had little appetite for bills dealing with policy.
“Now is the time for budget,” Courtney said. “That must be our mission this special session.”
Those positions aren’t likely to be welcomed by groups who insist police reforms and coronavirus liability concerns need immediate action.
That includes a coalition of Black-led organizations pushing some of the policing bills as part of a sweeping plan for ending systemic racism in the state. Advocates of that plan are among members of a new racial justice advisory council Brown announced earlier Friday.
Businesses, school districts, and local governments have all demanded protection from lawsuits.
A session to wrangle the state’s budget shortfall has long been in the works, but policymakers have differed on when it should be convened. Two of the legislature’s top budget writers have said the governor should have called in lawmakers weeks ago to begin the difficult work of cutting back spending.
But Brown had so far declined, holding out hope that Congress will pass another coronavirus-relief bill that could send a fresh influx of cash. Oregon already received $1.4 billion from the CARES Act, passed by Congress earlier this year.