Oregon lawmakers get business done despite protests
When Oregon legislators came to Salem on Monday, Dec. 21, for the year's third special session, they were ready for business.
They gathered four bills dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, its effects and the Labor Day wildfires.
They passed them in a 10-hour session, despite the presence outside of anti-lockdown protesters, some of whom shoved news photographers and others who got into the Capitol before police ejected them.
Leading the short list was a six-month extension of the statewide moratorium on residential evictions, coupled with $200 million in state funds to help landlords and tenants. Without legislative action, the current moratorium would have ended Dec. 31.
That bill passed largely with the support of Democratic legislative majorities.
Items that won broader bipartisan support were $800 million for pandemic expenses, including distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and infection testing, limited liability for schools against COVID-related lawsuits and permission for to-go cocktails coupled with limits on third-party fees for restaurant takeout and deliveries.
The $800 million, which includes the $200 million for landlord and tenant assistance, will go to the Emergency Board, a 20-member group that decides budget matters between sessions of the full Legislature. The E-Board has not set a date for a 13th meeting, but it is likely in the first week in January, ahead of the official opening of the 2021 session on Jan. 11.
The four bills, which a special committee heard in two separate meetings last week, survived from a long wish list compiled by legislators.
"There was agreement these four things had to be done today," House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said after she closed the session at 6 p.m. "And we did."
A fifth bill, which would have enacted a similar legal shield for some health care providers, died when House Democrats opposed it. Kotek said that without amendments, it provided insufficient protection for consumers and whistleblowers if a provider failed to follow state guidelines.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has taken part in 23 of the 43 prior special sessions in state history and presided over eight of them. Given that Gov. Kate Brown chose to convene the special session under regular rules, he said, the agenda had to be limited to a few items "and you have to know what you're doing" to keep it from becoming a runaway session.
Brown chose not to invoke a never-used constitutional provision, which voters approved in 2012, to declare a "catastrophic disaster" that would have allowed members to take part virtually without being physically present at the Capitol. The leaders said Brown was reluctant to do so because of legal questions.
Brown issued a statement after the session concluded:
"State agencies have been delivering support to Oregonians throughout the public health crisis and are ready to develop proposals for the Emergency Board to consider in January that ensure we are leveraging every available federal resource so that this aid package provides quick support to Oregonians in need.
"These policy changes and budget investments, coupled with the recently announced agreement on a federal economic package, will bring much-needed relief to Oregonians and help beat the COVID-19 virus. These are important steps, but more resources will be needed for Oregon families and businesses when Congress returns to Washington."
Meanwhile, police arrested five people — one of them surrendered Dec. 27 — for attempting to enter the Capitol, which has been closed to the public since March 18 after the start of the pandemic. The crowd started gathering around 8:30 a.m., shortly after the session got under way.
Some protesters entered a Capitol vestibule around 10:30 a.m., when someone leaving the building opened a door on the northwest side. One of them sprayed an unidentified chemical irritant on police. Ryan Lyles, 41, was arrested on charges of being a felon in possession of body armor and unlawful use of mace.
Protesters also deployed a device, which emitted smoke during the engagement.
Ronald Vanvlack, 75, and Jerry Dyreson, 53, were charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct when they failed to heed police orders to leave the vestibule, which was cleared.
Salem Police joined State Police troopers in enforcement during the day.
At 1:30 p.m., the crowd again attempted to gain entry through a door on the west side of the Capitol. The window to the door was broken, but people were barred from entering. Police arrested Jeremiah Pruitt, 35, on charges of criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.
All four men were taken to Marion County Jail, but were out of custody as of 7 p.m. Monday.
Jeremy Roberts, 40, surrendered to police on Dec. 27 and taken to jail, where he was held on five criminal counts. He was identified as attempting to gain access through the west door and attacking two news photographers.
One news account reported that Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, said lawmakers were doing "great evil" and declined to wear a mask, contrary to a protocol established for members for the special session. Heard was among the six senators who did not cast any votes during the session.
Police dissuaded Courtney from going outside to confront the protesters.
Courtney said he told State Police Superintendent Terri Davie, herself a former commander of the Capitol Mall division, that she had full authority to do what she deemed necessary to keep the Capitol safe.
During their post-session availability with reporters, Courtney and Kotek said they will consider what steps will be necessary to conduct the 2021 regular session, which opens Jan. 11 and gets down to business starting Jan. 19 for 160 days.
"A lot will be virtual," Kotek said, given that COVID-19 infection rates have shown only some signs of easing.
Courtney said he has taken pride in a Capitol building that has been accessible to the public for the most part. But he said that Monday's events, plus the anger some protesters have shown during the pandemic, may prompt tighter security.
"I don't want to do it," he said. "But those days may be coming."
NOTE: Adds that a fifth bill died in the special-session committee relating to limited liability for some health care providers. Updates that Jeremy Roberts surrendered to police on Dec. 27, six days after the session, and was taken to Marion County Jail.
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