Oregon lawmakers powered through a one-day special session Monday by cutting spending and rebalancing the state budget, easing some unemployment claims and restricting chokeholds and modifying police use of physical force.
The Legislature's second special session this summer wrapped up after more than 14 hours. The Senate quit at 10:19 p.m., and the House followed at 11:16 p.m.
"I knew there were disagreements about votes and process," Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said as he adjourned his chamber. "But you stayed with us so we could complete this special session."
Members passed about a dozen measures despite complaints about access restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, which has closed the Capitol in Salem to the public.
"We cannot continue to do public policy with no committees and no public input," Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons said.
A 10-member committee handled 11 of 13 bills, including all seven related to the budget, that Democratic legislative leaders had drafted for the session. Most of the debate was not about the budget, but over three bills relating to unemployment claims — and one of them failed.
A different panel cleared a bill (House Bill 4301) to ban police use of chokeholds even when police can use deadly force. Lawmakers during their first special session in June limited chokeholds to instances where police can employ the use of deadly force.
That bill also amends Oregon's law governing police use of physical force or deadly physical force — a law that dates to 1971 — by requiring police to give a warning first and allow a "reasonable opportunity" for a person to cease resistance.
Some issues did not make it onto the legislative agenda.
Among them was legislation to disconnect Oregon's tax code from three federal tax breaks included in the CARES Act. Supporters said it would recoup potential losses of $225 million for state coffers, but business groups argued that the federal provisions were designed to lower their tax liability and let them retain needed cash. The House Revenue Committee heard the proposed bill on Thursday, Aug. 6.
Also left hanging was whether lawmakers should approve a liability shield for businesses, schools and others against lawsuits arising from the coronavirus pandemic. No specific proposal was offered.
Lawmakers did not take up the disposition of $105 million in federal aid that was to be spent on state purchases of protective equipment such as masks, gloves, gowns and shields. Cities and counties sought the money for their own priorities. A committee of lawmakers blocked the proposed purchase last week.
Lawmakers did much of their budget work weeks ago, after budget committee leaders unveiled their plan to eliminate a gap of more than $1 billion between declining tax collections and previously approved spending for the current two-year budget. Budget subcommittees heard testimony July 22 to 24.
The plan maintains a $9 billion state school fund — about half of which already is spent — but lawmakers will have to draw $400 million from an education reserve to do it. About $400 million will be left in that reserve, and lawmakers do not plan to tap the state's rainy-day fund, which will be just under $1 billion by mid-2021.
The main bill cuts $481 million in other spending from the tax-supported general fund, including debt repayments for building projects that now are suspended. That total exceeds the $387 million target originally set by the budget committee leaders.
"Practically every agency with general fund was reduced," John Borden, a legislative fiscal analyst, told the committee.
Unlike the original budget-balancing plan, the main bill leaves open two state prisons.
Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, a 260-bed minimum-security prison in North Bend, would have closed in September. Warner Creek Correctional Facility, a 400-bed minimum-security prison near Lakeview, was scheduled for closure at the end of the budget cycle in mid-2021.
The main bill also leaves an ending balance of about $100 million, down from the nearly $1 billion projected before the pandemic resulted in shutdowns of business activity and public life and ate into state tax collections.
The Emergency Board, which consists of 20 lawmakers who handle budget matters between sessions, will have $200 million more for pandemic and wildfire emergencies. The state emergency fund was down to $10.3 million.
The main special-session committee cleared two of three bills relating to unemployment claims.
One bill (Senate Bill 1703) allows the Department of Revenue to share information on tax returns, which are confidential, with the Employment Department. Some sharing already takes place, and for regular claims from the state unemployment trust fund, the Employment Department can check payroll records of wage earners. But without this bill, the Employment Department was slowed in processing claims by people that the CARES Act made newly eligible for unemployment benefits in a federal program. Among them are self-employed people, independent contractors and freelancers, gig and temporary workers. All have filed tax returns.
A second bill (Senate Bill 1701) allows a higher threshold for worker earnings — $300 per week, rather than 10 times Oregon's minimum wage at $132.50 — before unemployment benefits are reduced. This change will expire Jan. 1, 2022.
State Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle put forth the idea after she consulted with her counterpart in Georgia. She said the change would allow some workers to earn more money without losing benefits, and some employers to take on more workers.
It won the endorsement of Jason Brandt, president of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, who said, "We decided to share our position because we think this is the right thing to do."
Oregon's leisure and hospitality industry has been affected most by the pandemic downturn.
Although the bill passed, several Republicans said they were skeptical about the ability of the Employment Department to make the necessary adjustments to a 3-decade-old mainframe system that relies on a computer language dating back 60 years.
A third bill (Senate Bill 1702) failed. It would have facilitated unemployment benefits for employees of public and private schools other than teachers, researchers and administrators — maintenance workers, cooks and other staff — and removed them from state adjudication of claims that usually takes weeks.
Four of five House members on the committee voted for it, but Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose joined two Republican senators to oppose it. It failed because the bill required majorities from House and Senate members to advance.
That result prompted a squabble between Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who blamed Senate Republicans for the defeat and omitted mention of Johnson's opposition, and Girod, who said that the number of Republican senators who opposed it "equal the IQ of the governor."
NOTE: Updates with final action by lawmakers and adjournment of session; clarifies legislative changes in police use of physical force or deadly physical force.
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