Oregon lawmakers will likely convene in a special remote hearing in coming days, to offer swift aid to renters, hospitals, domestic violence victims and workers amid the ongoing pandemic.
Weeks after an expected special legislative session was scrapped, top lawmakers in both parties say they anticipate the Legislature’s Emergency Board will meet next week to allocate tens of millions of dollars in emergency funds as the state awaits federal stimulus payments.
Items likely to be up for consideration, leading Democrats said, include direct assistance for renters, additional resources for homeless services and domestic violence prevention, help for small businesses and money for people awaiting unemployment insurance. Lawmakers will likely also give state agencies the formal okay to spend federal aid money on urgent needs such as propping up rural hospitals, they said.
“We’re gonna deal with some of the things that we think have got to move now,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said Wednesday. “There’s some real emergencies out there.”
In a nationwide crisis where eye-popping dollar figures have become the norm, the Legislature’s authority will be modest.
The Emergency Board, which has the power to allocate state funds when the Legislature is not in session, has around $50 million to work with. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said Thursday she hoped to leave around $20 million in the fund to address wildfires and other hazards.
By contrast, the state is expecting roughly $1.6 billion in additional federal funds to help combat the pandemic.
Kotek and Courtney declined to discuss specific dollar amounts for any one priority, saying that the details were still being worked out and that they needed to learn more about available federal funds. Top Republicans said early Thursday they were still awaiting a draft agenda.
After a legislative session rendered useless by partisanship in February, lawmakers in both parties have been largely in step when it comes to addressing the threats of COVID-19. A special joint committee convened to address the pandemic agreed on a set of areas where aid should be rendered and policies tweaked.
Those discussions, though, were held in the context of a special session that Gov. Kate Brown has so far declined to call. And it wasn’t clear Thursday whether lawmakers would agree on all elements of the forthcoming emergency aid package.
“I don’t think there will be anything on here that people don’t think there’s a need for,” Kotek said.
But leading Republicans in both the House and Senate have voiced misgivings in the last week about some priorities.
“This is an election year, and there are certain people on both sides of the aisle who would like to, if possible, do some positioning,” Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, said March 10. “There are legislators who want to do stuff for housing in Portland and things like that.”
By Thursday, Baertschiger’s outlook appeared to have mellowed. “I don’t think it’s gonna be that big a deal,” he said. “I don’t think we’re gonna be allocating a lot of money.”
Rep. Christine Drazan, the Republican leader in the House, said Thursday she hadn’t seen a detailed rundown of an emergency package. Based on what she’d heard, though, she worried that lawmakers would be asked to spend down too much of the emergency fund — possibly as much as $38 million, leaving the fund lower than it’s been in recent history.
Drazan, of Canby, said she would prioritize spending that puts money into the hands of Oregonians over giving money to entities and organizations serving the homeless, for instance.
“From what I have heard [the agenda] doesn’t meet the criteria for a bipartisan approach to COVID-19,” she said. “There’s still some conversation to have.”
One big question about an Emergency Board meeting appears to be settled: How to keep lawmakers apart.
The House and Senate operate under different rules, and House rules have historically been read to prohibit lawmakers from voting remotely, according to House Chief Clerk Tim Sekerak. That raised the specter that the nine representatives on the committee would need to travel to the Capitol and meet in person to conduct a committee hearing, potentially risking exposure to the coronavirus.
But Kotek decided Thursday to read the rules differently, she said, and to allow lawmakers to vote remotely nonetheless.
“I’ve been looking at different interpretations of our House rules,” Kotek said. “Given the nature of the pandemic, I think we have the flexibility to do this virtually in terms of voting.”
She added: “Is it 100 percent certain? No.”
Unlike Republican lawmakers in some states, neither Drazan nor Baertschiger has taken explicit issue with Brown’s decision to issue a “stay-home” order March 23, shutting down much of the state economy in the process. But both lawmakers on Thursday indicated they believe it’s time to start strategizing around opening some businesses back up.
“I don’t think setting a date is a good idea,” Drazan said. But she added businesses should have a better idea of what might be expected when they are allowed to reopen — for instance, whether they would need to remodel to allow for better social distancing or purchase specialized equipment.
Baertschiger, meanwhile, says Brown should consider opening up businesses in parts of the state that have been largely untouched by the pandemic.
“Here’s what’s gonna happen in rural Oregon: They’re just gonna start going back to work,” he said. “They’re not gonna do this much longer.”
On Tuesday, the governor announced a set of five loose criteria for reopening the state economy that included a slowed transmission of the virus, adequate equipment, increased testing capacity, and better ability to track the spread of the disease.
Once those things are in place, Brown said, she will begin taking a sector-by-sector look at allowing businesses to reopen. That could involve easing restrictions geographically she said.