Any legislative session in the midst of a national movement over racial injustice and in the thick of a global pandemic would pose some uncertainties.
But Oregon lawmakers added their own self-inflicted degree of unpredictability to the special session slated to kick off on Monday, making it among the most uncertain in modern history.
Less than 24 hours before the session was scheduled to convene, lawmakers were still discussing just what policies they would tackle, and how long it might take to complete the work. Legislators have been split on how broad the session should be, and Republicans have made clear they could refuse to fast-track policy bills they feel veer from the urgent issues such sessions are meant to address.
At the top of the to-do list is addressing the state’s staggering budget shortfall — a prospect that lawmakers in both parties expect to be relatively straightforward.
But more will likely be discussed. Included in a list of bills posted Saturday evening were proposals to help streamline the state’s unemployment benefits process, curtail police use of force, and even increase the cost of mining permits in the state. At least some of those proposals were still being negotiated Sunday afternoon, officials in both parties said.
Apparently off the table are bills that would have altered the Legislature’s rules against harassment and retaliation, disconnected Oregon’s tax code from some federal tax breaks, and pursued a broader suite of police reforms.
Even without those provisions, the scope of the session might be wider than many legislative leaders had signaled support for. In recent days, the top Republicans in the House and Senate, and the Democratic Senate President, had all stressed that the session should have a narrow focus on budget matters.
That insistence ran up against House Democrats and Gov. Kate Brown, who said other bills should be part of the discussion.
“If you had asked me an hour ago, I would have said it was going to be strictly budget,” Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said Friday afternoon. “But now, it sounds like there might be some policy bills.”
Special sessions in Oregon are typically short, choreographed affairs. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has been adamant in recent days that lawmakers need to keep their time in the Capitol brief because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I sweat rocks last time, terrified that someone was going to get the virus,” Courtney said last week, referring to a three-day special session in late June. “Our numbers are even worse now in [Marion County]… I can’t guarantee anybody’s safety.”
As with the June session, the Capitol will be closed off to the public this week, and lawmakers will take steps to ensure appropriate social distancing and hygiene. But with apparent divides over what legislation is necessary, the session could stretch well beyond the single-day affair favored by many.
House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said Friday that her caucus had only agreed to suspend normal bill timelines for budget bills. Without such suspensions, bills require at least three days to pass through a chamber.
If Democrats, who hold supermajorities in both chambers, insist on pursuing policy changes, Drazan suggested “it will be a thorough session where we spend some time together in the building.” On Sunday afternoon, however, Drazan said her caucus was still working through the details.
Here’s a look at the issues lawmakers could tackle.
The state budget
In a span of five months, Oregon lawmakers went from debating how to spend millions in unexpected revenue to facing a budget ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and a bleak economic future.
Lawmakers charged with crafting the budget said they examined every cut with the idea that their primary goal was to stave off making any draconian reductions in the state’s K-12 public school system. The budget they’re expected to put forward leaves a $9 billion fund for schools untouched, though it does trim in other areas.
Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, one of the Legislature’s key budget writers, said the goal was to not further exacerbate the inequities already laid bare by the global pandemic.
“On top of that you have economists saying the number one way to rebound out of a recession is continued investment in education,” Rayfield said.
Budget writers say they managed to preserve recent investments made to help improve the state’s troubled child welfare system and continue to help dig it out of a housing crisis. They debated closing two state prisons, Shutter and Warner Creek Correctional Institutions, which hold a combined 795 inmates, but ultimately decided against it.
The budget being proposed includes a combination of making nearly $400 million in cuts and administrative savings, tapping another $400 million in a state reserve fund and other budget adjustments to ultimately close the budget gap. Some positions will be held vacant, other funds will be swept and lawmakers have restricted travel for other agencies.
“We have spent an inordinate amount of time examining every possible reduction option,” Rayfield said, adding that the state’s long-term ombudsman’s in-state travel budget of $5,576 was slashed.
Among the specific changes being proposed: A bill that would increase permit fees charged to mining operations in the state, a topic lawmakers took up during the regular session in February but failed to pass amid a Republican walkout. The increased fees are intended to prevent cuts to the state’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries.
Lawmakers initially held off on addressing the budget when they met in June, betting that the state would see a new influx of relief from the federal government. Many state lawmakers are still hoping more money from Congress will help to soften some of the budget cuts. Oregon already received $1.4 billion from the $2 trillion CARES Act passed earlier this year.
This session could prove to be a test run for much harder sessions in the future. Economists have projected the virus could lead to even more staggering revenue shortfalls in the future.
“Next year if the revenue projections don’t improve, it’s not going to get any easier,” Rayfield said. “Nobody takes these jobs thinking you’re going to be doing it in the middle of a pandemic.”
After passing a series of public safety bills in June, lawmakers have been keen to keep pressing the issue. To that end, a joint House and Senate committee on policing met 11 times in July and early August to study policing issues and discuss next steps.
Bill concepts floated in the committee have been wide-ranging. One early proposal would have forced officers to wear either white or light blue shirts and to prominently display names and identification numbers. Others would ban the use of tear gas, create a statewide framework that could theoretically be used to make it easier to punish officer misconduct, and create a public database for officers’ use of force.
But it became apparent last week that many proposals the committee has considered will have to wait — perhaps until next year’s session — while policies are massaged.
“We intend to submit the recommendation to our respective chambers,” Rep. Janelle Bynum, a Clackamas Democrat and chair of the committee, said on Aug. 6. “I would like to be bold and respond to the moment.”
The proposal that emerged for this special session, House Bill 4301, contains the least controversial concepts the committee considered.
The bill bans police from using chokeholds, except in situations when defending themselves or others from imminent harm. That policy strengthens a bill passed in June, which banned chokeholds except in any circumstance where the use of deadly force by an officer was allowed. Police unions in the state do not oppose the latest change.
The bill also would tighten the rules for officers to use deadly force, requiring that police believe a person “poses an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury” and that such force is necessary to make an arrest, prevent escape, or to defend the officer or another person. The bill similarly limits when an officer may use physical force to situations where they believe injury is imminent, or to make an arrest or prevent escape.
In any case of using force, police would be required to consider alternatives and give a warning if they have “a reasonable opportunity to do so.”
Lawmakers also appear ready to pursue several tweaks the officials at the Oregon Employment Department believe could help sift through an unprecedented crush of claims for unemployment insurance brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
As hundreds of thousands of Oregonians lost work, the department’s phone lines became hopelessly jammed, and an outdated computer system was not nimble enough to process changes to benefit policies. The OED has processed hundreds of thousands of claims, but many Oregonians are still awaiting payment.
Two proposals backed by Gov. Kate Brown and Kotek could help speed things up. The first, Senate Bill 1702, would ensure that the employment department doesn’t have to closely investigate the claims of many school employees on a case-by-case basis — in a process known as adjudication — to ensure they qualify for benefits. The other, Senate Bill 1703, would help the department access records from the Department of Revenue to verify claims.
In an interview Friday, acting Employment Department Director David Gerstenfeld said that, while “there’s no silver bullet” for the agency’s many difficulties, the bills could help speed processing. In an email Sunday afternoon, Gerstenfeld urged lawmakers to take them up.
“If you are able to address these bills during this Special Session, it will help get benefits to more people more quickly, and I hope there is an opportunity for them to be addressed,” he wrote.
A third proposal, Senate Bill 1701, would allow a person to make up to $300 a week and still receive full unemployment payments, more than doubling the current standard. Such a change “would take some time to implement,” Gerstenfeld said, but he does not expect the tweak would add significantly to payouts from the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.