Lawmakers back $62 million for Black families, businesses
Black families and businesses will have access to $62 million in federal funds for relief from the coronavirus pandemic as a result of action by Oregon lawmakers.
But the approval by the Legislative Emergency Board, which meets between sessions of the full Legislature, wasn't without controversy. The allocation from the state's $1.4 billion share under the CARES Act drew four votes in opposition, all from Republicans who seized on an opinion by the legislative counsel that such a targeted program might be unconstitutional.
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons requested the opinion from the counsel's office, which advises the Legislature. Girod said he was aware that Blacks have been discriminated against in Oregon.
"Having said that, we do have a legal opinion that says this is illegal," Girod said at the E-Board meeting Tuesday, July 14. "I'm sorry. I wish it was. But it's not. If we made it broader so it includes people of color, it would be legal and we wouldn't be putting the state in jeopardy."
The opinion says the state could be on the hook for money spent in violation of the federal law.
The other opposing votes in the 15-4 action were cast by Sens. Bill Hansell of Athena and Lynn Findley of Vale, and Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner.
Girod added: "Most of the black population, I'm sorry to say, is in Portland. If you look at it from a dollar perspective, this is just another grab for Portland."
A well-crafted proposal
Under the Oregon Cares Fund, the $62 million would be administered by The Contingent — formerly known as the Portland Leadership Foundation — which operates in all 36 counties and has a contract with the state Department of Human Services for another program. The Black United Fund of Oregon, based in Portland, also would be involved.
"This is a well-crafted proposal that is meeting the needs around the state," said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. "Half of Black Oregonians do not live in Portland. Many of them live in the metro area, but they do not live in Portland."
Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, said he supported this proposal because he has confidence in the work of The Contingent.
According to a memo by the Portland firm of Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt, a state program targeted to help one race could easily withstand a legal challenge if it aims to rectify past discrimination that results in current disparities.
On a webpage maintained by Multnomah County for the three metro-area counties, Blacks account for 5% of the population but 8% of all COVID-19 coronavirus cases; Hispanics, 11% of population but 36% of cases. For comparison, whites make up 72% of the region's population but 37% of cases. Statistics are as of July 14.
Although no oral testimony was allowed, the E-Board received letters of support from Multnomah and Washington counties.
"The need is evident as the COVID-19 pandemic has showcased that BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) communities and businesses have been disparately impacted by this public health pandemic," according to the Washington County letter. It was signed by Chair Kathryn Harrington and Commissioner Pam Treece.
The Multnomah County letter, signed by the four commissioners and Chair Deborah Kafoury, said: "As we have seen from federal relief efforts, one-size-fits-all strategies do not address disproportionality. Rather, they exacerbate already existing inequities. Eliminating inequities requires targeted relief and focused strategies."
'Break the cycle'
The E-Board's two Black members, both senators, reacted strongly to criticism of the program. Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said Black-owned businesses did not get a fair shake at the billions of dollars that the federal government made available through the Paycheck Protection Program — either because other businesses obtained the money but did not need it, or they had pre-existing relationships with banks that gave them priority.
"It is time to do something about it — not a symbolic gesture, not a pat on the head and saying don't get upset, it'll be all right this time, we promise," he said. "There is a strong basis to show there is remedial action to address specific racial disparities in this emergency."
Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, had similar comments. "We talk about how do we break the cycle of generational poverty," he said. "We start doing it by providing equal opportunity and equal access to capital. This is a pittance of all of the money we have been spending to help all Oregonians."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.