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Oregon Democrat leads the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee for a second time.

PMG FILE PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is shown here at a press conference in 2017.Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden says that increasing aid for families and unemployed workers and extending some unemployment benefits past their scheduled expiration March 13 sit atop a long to-do list as he takes over the U.S. Senate's tax-writing committee.

"One of the lessons you learn as a legislator is that when you have an opportunity, you use it," Wyden told reporters on a national conference call Jan. 13. "Our first priority is additional economic relief for millions of hurting families."

The Oregon Democrat will be chairman of the Finance Committee when Democrats become the Senate's majority party — though by the slimmest of margins — as two newly elected members from Georgia are seated. The 50-50 split favors Democrats when California Sen. Kamala Harris becomes vice president on Jan. 20.

Wyden pledged to:

• Increase relief payments from $600, which Congress included in the most recent coronavirus aid plan that President Donald Trump signed on Dec. 27, by $1,400 to a total of $2,000 per person. Some of those $600 payments already have been made. (The initial payments under the CARES Act last spring were $1,200 per person.)

• Raise supplemental unemployment benefits from the current $300 per week, which will expire March 13 after just 11 weeks. Wyden did not specify a figure, but he was the original champion of the $600-per-week supplemental payments included in the CARES Act. Those payments ended July 25; a separate action by Trump, drawing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, extended $300-per-week payments from July 26 through Sept. 5.

• Extend unemployment benefits for self-employed and gig workers, whose payments also will expire March 13. Wyden did not specify a new date, but he also was the champion of extending federal benefits under the CARES Act to self-employed and gig workers, who are not covered by the current state unemployment systems. This program is known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

• Extend federal benefits beyond the amounts paid by states. Oregon pays state benefits for 26 weeks, and the current federal coronavirus aid plan extends benefits for 13 weeks.

Wyden said it should be evident why Congress and President-elect Joe Biden want to make these actions top priority.

"Vaccinations are going more slowly than projected. The Biden administration is certainly going to speed things up. But the country isn't going to be back to normal by March," he said.

On Jan. 14, after Biden released a plan with similar provisions, Wyden said:

"I look forward to taking the lead on a proposal that puts a stop to needlessly lurching from crisis to crisis and gives jobless workers the certainty that they will be able to buy groceries and make rent. If you've lost your job through no fault of your own, your ability to eat shouldn't depend on Senate Republicans. The American people strongly support continuing this vital aid until this crisis is over, and it's the right thing to do for our long-term economic recovery."

Biden proposed $1,400 more in relief payments, $400 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits, and their extension through Sept. 30.

This is not the first time Wyden will lead the committee, which has authority over a broad range of issues in addition to the federal tax code. Unemployment, Social Security and Medicare all rely on federal taxes. He led it in 2014, after Democrat Max Baucus resigned his Senate seat to become U.S. ambassador to China, before Republicans won a Senate majority later that year. He has been its top Democrat since then.

As chairman, however, Wyden will set its agenda. He's been in the Senate 25 years. Republican Bob Packwood, his predecessor, had the same role in 1985 and 1986 and again in 1995, before resigning his seat under pressure.

"We have got to fix the broken tax code, lower health care costs starting with prescriptions, move toward a carbon-free future and rebuild our infrastructure," Wyden said. "The Finance Committee is at the center of all of these issues."

Economic triggers

Wyden also restated his preference for a series of triggers, based on a state's three-month average, that would decrease benefits as unemployment goes down and increase benefits as the rate goes up. President Barack Obama included a similar proposal in his final State of the Union address in 2016, but Republican congressional majorities took no action.

"I want everyone to know that I am going to push with every bit of my energy to make sure there are triggers to tie benefits to economic conditions, so that the Senate does not need to come back and revisit those issues every few months," he said. "There is too much to do. Too often in the past, these arbitrary dates just hold off progress."

David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, said such triggers would make it harder to pay benefits unless there is sufficient lead time for computer programmers and others to plan for the changes. He said it's difficult to offer an estimate.

"It is really hard to give a concrete answer because even little details can make a big impact on how quickly we are able to implement the program," Gerstenfeld said on his weekly conference call with reporters Wednesday.

"It would be helpful having several weeks or even months to understand the program and get guidance from the Department of Labor well in advance of when the benefits will start being paid, so that we can build the program and implement it with that guidance already known."

Remaining work

The agency has continued payments to self-employed and gig workers under the new federal coronavirus aid plan and gotten a start on paying the $300-per-week supplements.

But Gerstenfeld said the agency staff is being kept busy by other requirements in the new plan.

One will require some people to provide additional documentation of self-employment income after Dec. 27, when Trump signed the bill. Gerstenfeld said the agency is sending notices to affected people to have them submit that information within 90 days, or their claims will end and people will have to repay excess amounts.

He also said the agency is not yet ready to pay out a new federal benefit of $100 per week. It goes to people receiving regular unemployment benefits from the state trust fund, but also earn at least $5,000 in self-employment income. This program is known as Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation.

The first payments under that program are still planned in March, and Gerstenfeld says they will be retroactive to Dec. 27 for a maximum of 11 weeks. He said the adjustments to income may affect unemployed workers' eligibility for other programs, such as the Oregon Health Plan and Children's Health Insurance Program, which are tied to household income.

"We do not have a solid date when all of that work will be done," he said.

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NOTE: Adds Wyden's reaction Thursday after President-elect Joe Biden released his own plan for economic recovery and the coronavirus pandemic. Updates with Biden's proposed increases, which must be approved by Congress.


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