When they meet in coming days to address the escalating coronavirus pandemic, Oregon lawmakers are likely to temporarily halt evictions and foreclosures, ratchet up financial assistance to struggling businesses and residents, and resurrect a bill that makes it easier to site homeless shelters.
Those are among 15 proposals recommended by a special joint committee on handling the disease COVID-19. They were sent along to House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney last week.
The proposals sketch out a plan for how the state might respond to the most urgent needs created by a pandemic that has upended the state’s economy. They focus on supporting businesses and residents put at risk by the crisis and on helping the state’s health care system adapt to the anticipated strain caused by the spread of COVID-19.
“The novel coronavirus pandemic is unlike any challenge we have ever faced as legislators and unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes,” the chairs of the coronavirus committee, Sen. Arnie Roblan and Rep. Paul Holvey, wrote in a letter. “It was always our first priority to identify what action that the Legislature could take in the very near future to provide resources and direction that would assist the response efforts and dramatically slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, recognizing the extreme negative impacts on human health and our economy.”
The specifics of many proposals are still up in the air. Some could be altered by legislative leaders in the drafting process. Others — such as exact dollar amounts put toward rent relief, business grants and other priorities — might not become clear until the state knows what it will receive in federal stimulus.
Here’s a rundown of proposals lawmakers have recommended:
- Halting all residential and commercial evictions. This proposal builds off a March 22 executive order banning residential evictions issued by Gov. Kate Brown. It would require tenants be given payment plans and prohibit landlords from charging late fees. Recipients of the benefit would need to show they'd lost income due to the pandemic. The halt would likely last for either 90 days or as long as Brown's existing emergency declaration. Lawmakers also want to prohibit foreclosures during this period.
- Increasing rental and mortgage assistance through existing state programs.
- Resurrecting House Bill 4001, which failed to pass when the Legislature imploded earlier this year. The bill would make it easier to site homeless shelters and allow parking lots to be used as transitional housing facilities where people could sleep in their vehicles, among other things.
- Lowering barriers to existing financial supports for people in need, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and allocating money to the state's food banks.
- Allowing parents to use state-mandated sick leave because their children are at home due to school closures.
- Taking steps to ensure patients are not hit with "out-of-network" medical charges regardless of where they go to seek care and increasing physician assistants' authority to practice medicine.
- Ensuring hospitals are not hit with additional "bed taxes" if they must expand capacity due to the outbreak.
- Providing grants and loans to small businesses impacted by COVID-19.
- Granting Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Martha Walters additional power to alter mandatory timelines in criminal and civil cases.
While these proposals saw bipartisan support in the joint legislative committee, at least one topic is likely to create tension during a special session.
Business groups and many Republican lawmakers have been calling for a delay to the state’s commercial activities tax, or CAT, a new tax on some state businesses that took effect in January.
The bulk of discussion in the committee surrounded potentially delaying first-quarter payments of the tax, but business leaders have made stronger demands recently.
In a letter to lawmakers Thursday, dozens of industry groups around the state called on the Legislature to hold off implementing the tax for the first half of 2020, a move that would potentially deprive the state of hundreds of millions of dollars it had planned on.
“Requiring CAT tax payments in April will be the absolute worst timing possible for struggling businesses during this crisis,” the letter said. “Companies will be forced to pay this tax instead of paying employees, meaning potential layoffs across a broad spectrum of industries.”
If lawmakers are unwilling to push back the tax, business groups are calling on them to either halve the tax rate or double available deductions for the first half of 2020.
A possible CAT deferral was not included in lawmakers' eventual recommendations, though the committee is suggesting that a bill be brought forward to implement some technical fixes and new carve outs in the tax.
Lawmakers also tabled dozens of other ideas, finding they needed more information or that the issue was already being addressed.
With more certainty about what lawmakers might take up in a short special session, one large question still lingers: When will it happen?
House Speaker Tina Kotek has voiced support for passing a relief package prior to April 1, when rent and mortgage payments come due for many. But with the specifics of a $2 trillion federal relief package still somewhat unknown, Gov. Kate Brown has not offered a date for a session.
Instead, Brown has repeatedly cautioned lawmakers about Oregon’s precarious position. The state is planning to spend untold millions in a relief package without knowing how deeply tax revenues will be affected by the crisis.
“The bottom line is that we have far more needs than we have resources,” Brown told reporters Tuesday. “As you are well aware the economy is tumbling down and we don’t know what that will look like. … I am also cautioning legislators to be extremely fiscally prudent.”