Politics

Top Oregon Democrats say another special session could be coming

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Aug. 11, 2020 10:34 p.m.

With a tense and hectic session behind them, policymakers are already thinking through what bills they might propose in coming weeks.

One day after a special legislative session that left relationships bruised and lawmakers exhausted, Democratic leaders on Tuesday were already mulling the possibility of another session in the coming weeks.

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With no indication the state’s budget picture won’t grow more dire — and pressure remaining from both parties to pass a number of high-profile bills — Senate President Peter Courtney, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Gov. Kate Brown all separately conceded the year’s third special session could be on the horizon.

“It depends on a couple of things,” Brown said in a call with reporters. “Number one, whether or not Congress is able to get their act together and come up with a funding package for state and local jurisdictions. If they do not, that’s going to require either the Legislature or myself taking other drastic budget measures.”

Brown added that additional police reform bills could be fast-tracked via a special session if they can garner enough support.

The House of Representatives works to adopts rules during the second special of the Oregon State Legislature at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Procedures have been put in place to limit the number of people on the floor and allow for social distancing amid the coronavirus.

The House of Representatives works to adopts rules during the second special of the Oregon State Legislature at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. Procedures have been put in place to limit the number of people on the floor and allow for social distancing amid the coronavirus.

Brian Hayes / Statesman Journal

In their own calls with reporters, Courtney and Kotek mentioned several bills that could merit emergency action in the near future, including liability protections and workers’ compensation assurances related to COVID-19, as well as the elimination of some new tax breaks.

“Those are the big ones I see happening and they’re going to be controversial,” said Courtney, a Salem Democrat. “Very controversial.”

At the same time, the policymakers took stock of the often tense and hectic session that concluded in a single day Monday. Over the course of 15 hours, lawmakers passed 11 bills that closed a $1.2 billion budget gap, provided relief for unemployed workers, and tamped down on police chokeholds and use of force.

But while she applauded that work, Brown suggested Tuesday she may take actions in the coming days to reverse some budgetary decisions the Legislature made.

Brown said she’s uncomfortable with lawmakers’ decision to spend down $400 million from a reserve account for education and to spend other one-time money from a fund related to the state’s pension system.

While Oregon has record reserves on hand, Brown said the use of that money could make it harder if she has to find billions of dollars in savings in the next two-year budget, as currently expected. The governor did not specifically address how she might curtail legislators’ spending but said “all options” are on the table.

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Brown also hinted she could close two of Oregon’s 16 state prisons, a step high-ranking legislators in both parties have said they expect her to take. As budget talks developed last month, the Legislature initially proposed closing the Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend and the Warner Creek Correctional Institution in Lakeview. Brown said she was disappointed when lawmakers pulled back.

“We were working with the Department of Corrections to identify two facilities that are, should we say, in more challenging conditions and that would enable us to shut down over time,” Brown said. “We think it’s really important, given that we are seeing the need for fewer beds, that these resources go elsewhere.”

The governor would not confirm any final plans for shuttering the prisons.

Kotek and Courtney, the most powerful lawmakers in the state, separately addressed Tuesday a complaint voiced by members of both parties during this week’s session: That it was not transparent enough for the general public.

Courtney was self-critical, saying that the Legislature had rushed through a number of proposals without the normal public vetting. In particular, three bills aimed at improving disastrous delays in the state’s unemployment benefits system verged on problematic, Courtney said.

The three proposals emerged late last week and were introduced at the urging of Kotek and Brown. None of the bills received a public hearing, a customary event that allows the public and stakeholders to weigh in on a bill.

Tensions over that process came close to derailing the session Monday night. When bipartisan opposition killed one of the unemployment bills in committee, Brown released a statement excoriating only Republicans for blocking the measure.

Courtney suggested that the governor’s statement had soured any possibility of salvaging the bill. Those bad feelings were still on display Tuesday, when Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, issued a statement criticizing Brown for “threatening to call another special session because the bill your special interests wanted was killed by bipartisan opposition.”

The bill’s failure also created friction in the House, where Kotek acknowledged Democrats considered refusing to conclude the session until the bill passed, a move that could have dragged out proceedings into a second day or longer.

“I don’t want to say we overreached, but we did,” Courtney said of the rushed process. “We are not doing public hearings the way we ordinarily do. You can criticize us for that.”

The Senate president, who frequently boasts of participating in more special sessions than any other lawmaker, added that he should not have agreed to introduce the bills in the first place.

“I should have said, ‘No, no, no, We are either going to have a plan on those or we’re not going to do it',” he said.

Meanwhile, Kotek, D-Portland, chalked up the irregularities to the unusual circumstances of governing in a pandemic. She conceded that the bills had emerged too late in the process for some lawmakers.

“The employment department needed help … Why wouldn’t we try?” she said. “Some of us are more comfortable with more last-minute work, and other people need weeks and weeks of conversations. I think the House just has more comfort level moving things quicker.”

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