Oregon lawmakers on Dec. 11 approved $2.9 million for emergency food purchases and millions more for state expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic, its economic aftershocks and the Labor Day wildfires.
But even though they spent more than $50 million, leaving about $14 million or less in the state emergency fund, lawmakers on the Emergency Board deferred millions more in expenses coming due to the 2021 Legislature. The new session opens Jan. 11, exactly one month after Friday's meeting.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat from Portland and its co-chair, said there is a possibility that the board may meet once more, depending on the timing of a special post-election session of the full Legislature.
The 20-member board is empowered to draw from the state emergency fund, spend federal and other funds and transfer money within already-approved agency budgets. But only the full Legislature can add to or cut the overall budgets, spend reserves or tap the ending balance.
The board had started with an allocation of $200 million, its highest total ever from the state's tax-supported general fund, after the Legislature rebalanced the budget at a special session Aug. 10.
But after a record 12 board meetings since the close of the 2020 session — six of them since Aug. 10 — the emergency fund is almost drained.
Lawmakers also were warned that budgets of two of the largest state agencies, the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority, will require rebalancing during the 2021 session because of unanticipated costs stemming from the pandemic. They heard status reports but were not asked to take immediate action.
On the advice of their budget staff, lawmakers went along with reduced recommendations for some spending.
The $2.9 million for emergency food purchases was half the the $5.8 million requested by the Oregon Food Bank and its 20 regional banks, a couple of which are operated directly by the bank. Together they distribute food through 1,400 sites.
A spokeswoman says the amount is sufficient for three months.
"With today's action, the Emergency Board has made a significant and critical investment in the food security of millions of Oregonians whose lives have been destabilized in one of the most challenging years in recent memory," Susannah Morgan, the Oregon Food Bank's chief executive, said in a statement after the vote.
The $5.8 million would have added to supplies through May, but legislative budget analysts said food advocates could return to the 2021 session for more. Food Bank spokeswoman Ashley Mumm said they would keep lawmakers advised.
The Oregon Food Bank received $8 million in help earlier this year at the start of the pandemic. The state's net contribution was $2 million, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) eventually reimbursed the rest. The Oregon Food Bank, in a letter filed with the Legislature, said demand for access to emergency food has grown from 15% to more than 100% since mid-March.
At the same time, it said, food shipments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other public and private sources have been spotty, delayed or even canceled. The food bank estimates it will be 7.6 million pounds short of what it anticipated by June 30, 2021.
"Even if January brings a second federal stimulus package, the food bank system will continue to play a central role in response and stabilization efforts for the pandemic and economy," the letter from Morgan and the 20 regional leaders said.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, was the lone dissenter on the vote. He accused the Oregon Food Bank of getting involved in politics, even to the extent of taking sides against candidates, after the food bank's leadership issued a statement critical of the Republican walkouts that prompted Democratic legislative leaders to shut down the 2020 session a few days early.
The walkouts had nothing to do with food issues, but they effectively prevented the Legislature from completing work on supplemental budget bills that proposed more spending on social services.
"I was aghast by their position that they had taken on a partisan issue," Findley said.
Kotek replied: "My guess is that if Democrats had walked out, they would have had the same position."
The Food Bank said afterward in a statement:
"We're incredibly fortunate and proud to have earned the support of a broad, bipartisan coalition of elected leaders, Democrats and Republicans, folks from the cities and folks from rural towns. But we have no hope of achieving our shared mission to end hunger when half that coalition refuses to show up to work. We have a responsibility to speak out when lawmakers resort to extreme tactics that harm people facing hunger."
As a former public policy advocate for the Oregon Food Bank years before she was elected to the House, Kotek said it and other nonprofits can comment on pending legislative action. Under federal tax codes, nonprofits cannot get involved in candidate races.
"I am not aware of any candidate-specific work that they do," Kotek said.
Lawmakers also reduced the requests by the Oregon Department of Forestry and Department of Transportation (ODOT) for expenses related to the Labor Day wildfires, which swept virtually all of western Oregon, plus part of the coast and Central Oregon.
They approved $25 million for the Department of Forestry to pay wildfire costs, but deferred $14.3 million to the 2021 session, when the full Legislature can consider rebalancing agency budgets before the end of the two-year cycle on June 30. They did approve $119,690 for staff to begin the replacement of the agency's Lyons station, which was destroyed in the fire along with communications equipment.
They also approved $7 million for the Department of Transportation to pay cleanup costs, on top of the $50 million they approved earlier, but deferred the rest of the agency's $43.7 million request to the 2021 session. These added costs are considered ineligible for federal reimbursement for disasters.
Even that reduced amount drew four votes against it, but some lawmakers who voted for it said they shared the concerns of the dissenters about how ODOT was bypassing normal contracting procedures in an accelerated effort to remove wildfire debris.
"We want to make sure we are doing this the right way, not just take the quick way," ODOT Director Kris Strickler said.
But Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said she had concerns about the records of some of the contractors already signed up, notably some from out of state.
"I have credible evidence that some of the (local) subcontractors have been abused even before the work has started," she said.
Strickler said some ODOT requests received responses only from national firms. But Johnson was not convinced.
"We are in for a very rocky road," she said.
Other expenses that lawmakers approved money for on Dec. 11:
• $6.6 million for Labor Day wildfire costs of the state fire marshal, which is part of the Oregon State Police, and $3.2 million for State Police expenses for the wildfires and racial justice protests in Portland.
• $1.35 million for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management for its share of wildfire costs and Eastern Oregon flood costs last winter — the money is the state's match for FEMA funds — and $506,096 for pandemic-related costs of the Oregon Military Department.
• $2.7 million for appellate defense by the Oregon Department of Justice of criminal convictions, $65,000 for the agency to prepare summaries known as ballot titles for proposed initiative measures, and $209,320 for the agency to investigate election fraud and Internet crimes against children. The last item is a transfer of money within the agency budget.
• $656,279 for increased legal costs of the Department of Water Resources.
NOTE: Adds comments by Oregon Food Bank after Emergency Board vote; clarifies who signed the Food Bank letter requesting aid.
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