House Democrats reintroduced a bill on Tuesday that will send one-time $600 payments to the bank accounts of more than a quarter-million Oregonians.
It marks the revival of a proposal Democrats in control of the legislature floated in the past: providing stimulus checks to essential workers who remained on the job throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
This iteration of the plan would focus efforts on around 260,000 people who filed for earned income tax credits — a break for low- and middle-income families — on their 2020 filings.
Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-East Portland, is one of the chief sponsors of the bill and will be tasked with shepherding it through the legislative process. It will receive its first public hearing on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 1:30 p.m.
Valderrama said proponents canned an earlier version of the plan for a couple of key reasons.
First, the original bill created a process for low-income workers to apply for payments. Valderrama said lawmakers were uneasy about the prospect of finding a state agency or third-party vendor that could handle that volume of work in a timely manner.
The process would be so cumbersome that most workers needing these payments wouldn’t see them until 2023 or later.
Secondly, the new bill doesn’t discriminate between what types of workers would be eligible for these payments. The original plan would have only qualified certain types of workers, a factor that lawmakers and proponents realized might preclude many who still need these payments and has been a cumbersome task to delineate who was eligible.
Under the new proposal, as long as they applied for the earned income tax credit on their 2020 state filing, taxpayers should receive a check.
Valderrama also said that Oregon residents who don’t have a social security number but file taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) will also be eligible for these payments. That includes people with various types of residency documentation statuses.
According to Oregon Department of Revenue data, counties with the highest percentage of residents claiming the state’s earned income tax credit include Malheur (22.7%), Klamath (19%) and Jefferson (18.9%) counties. In general, the state’s southern counties represent the highest percentage of those claiming the tax credit.
The bill states that these payments would not be taxable or eligible for garnishment, meaning everyone who needs this cash will get the whole payment no matter what.
“We know that working and low-wage families need this funding now,” Valderrama said. “We know the cost of living is sky-high, the revenue forecast (last week) told us that. Workers need to be able to afford the rising cost of groceries, prescriptions, childcare and all of those things.”
Valderrama says the bill has the support of nearly all the state’s major unions including the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Oregon Education Association, Oregon School Employees Association and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It also has the support of the Oregon Food Bank.
“I’m very excited about the energy in terms of support,” Valderrama said. “I remain very optimistic about the viability and success of seeing this through.”
While union leaders do support the new proposal, they don’t consider it a one-for-one replacement with what many of them were hoping to see take place this year.
In 2021, Democrats originally proposed economic impact payments for essential workers as high as $2,000 per household. Conversations around dollar amounts this year began around the $1,000 mark.
Valderrama said the drawback of payments at that level is they would be eligible for federal taxation.
Michael Selvaggio, a lobbyist for the UFCW Local 555, said the union was happy to support the new bill, but he doesn’t consider this effort replacement for a bill targeting essential worker payments.
“We’ve been promised essential worker pay two sessions in a row, and it’s been unceremoniously dropped from consideration each time,” Selvaggio said.
Selvaggio said the unions were not given an explanation for why the original bill died other than that Oregon’s state agencies don’t seem to have the capacity to handle the task.
“Which is kind of bizarre from my perspective,’’ he said.
Joe Baessler, a political coordinator for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, said the original proposal had too many unanswered questions such as: Who qualified? How many hours would one have to work? What if someone worked more than one job? What about farmworkers? What kind of jobs are considered high risk?
“No agency really has the capability to sort of pull together a program from scratch for that,” Baessler said.
Early estimates show the plan would cost the state around $180 million.
OPB reporter Dirk VanderHart contributed to this report.