With many pandemic protections due to expire at the end of December, Oregon lawmakers are set to convene in Salem for a special legislative session on Monday.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is asking lawmakers to address a few major issues including relief for landlords and tenants, a bill that would protect schools from some coronavirus-related lawsuits and even a provision to legalize to-go cocktails as a way to help bars and restaurants.
OPB’s Jenn Chávez spoke with OPB politics reporter Dirk VanderHart about what we can expect from the one-day, in-person session. An abridged version of their conversation is below.
Jenn Chávez: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown wants this special session to largely focus on helping Oregonians during the pandemic. What is Brown asking for specifically?
Dirk VanderHart: The governor and legislators are really concerned about the first of the year when a couple of potentially problematic things are going to happen. The first is that a lot of the federal money that Oregon has been relying on to assist people can’t be spent anymore. We’ve already spoken for almost $1.4 billion in federal aid here in Oregon, but there’s still ongoing programs that help business owners or fund contact tracing efforts that are going to need ongoing money. So lawmakers are concerned about making sure there’s going to be funding available for that.
Lawmakers are [also] going to consider allowing bars and restaurants to sell cocktails in to-go containers to help them survive the pandemic. They’re likely going to pass a bill that would limit when people can sue schools if kids or teachers contract COVID-19. And most controversially, lawmakers will consider extending an eviction ban in the state that’s set to expire on Jan. 1. Under the current proposal, the moratorium would extend for another six months, and lawmakers would spend $200 million to help landlords and tenants. Obviously, there’s a great deal of concern right now that beginning to push people out on the streets during winter in a pandemic could be a very, very bad thing.
Jenn Chávez: What would those renters protections mean for landlords?
VanderHart: The bill as it stands now, contains a couple of things for landlords. The biggie is that the state would create a fund that would let some landlords recoup up to 80% of the money they’ve lost because renters can’t afford to pay. The bill would also free up landlords a bit in terms of evictions. Essentially, it would allow evictions in more cases than have been allowed so far in the pandemic. Things like when a landlord is demolishing their property or wants to move into it themselves.
But despite that, this is pretty clearly not popular with most landlords. They see this as a mandate that they take a cut on their income. They don’t think that’s fair, and some mom and pop landlords say they really rely on this kind of income to get by. The counter of that is tenants and housing advocates push back saying, this would be devastating and lead to so much more homelessness if we allow evictions to continue.
Jenn Chávez: Are lawmakers confident they can get this done in one day?
VanderHart: I think so. This is definitely a meaty collection of bills, but based on everything we’re hearing so far, the two parties seem like they’ll be willing to cut a deal to streamline this session. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a short day in Salem, though. It’s been very clear from hearings so far that there are a lot of ideas on how the proposals should be changed, so there’s always the possibility that new disagreements could crop up.
And I should note that even though there’s a lot being considered here, there’s a lot that’s not being considered too, [like] proposals to extend a ban on mortgage foreclosures. Calls for the state to bolster unemployment payments are not being addressed either. So, some stuff is being left on the table.
Jenn Chávez: Oregonians are still being encouraged to stay home to reduce the spread of coronavirus, so why are lawmakers meeting in-person for this session?
VanderHart: That is a good question and one I think some lawmakers are wondering themselves. The basic answer is that the state has never done an all-remote legislative session, where people just don’t show up to the building. The Oregon Constitution actually allows that kind of session, but it’s never happened. And so, people had a lot of questions, and really, worries about what an all-virtual session could lead to, especially in terms of the balance of power between the parties in the building.
With those concerns in mind, Brown ultimately decided on an in-person session. I should say, even though lawmakers will be in the Capitol on Monday, they will be conducting virtual hearings much of the time, they’ll only be coming into the chamber to pass bills, there’ll be a lot of social distancing in place. They feel like they could do it safely. And really, we should point out, that’s a similar arrangement we’re likely to see next year in January when the legislature begins a six-month regular session.