One Oregon legislative special session done, but another lies in waiting
One special session of the Oregon Legislature is history, but a second is coming.
Gov. Kate Brown says she will hold off an official call until mid to late July, following last week's three-day session that saw the passage of legislation to deal with police accountability, after-effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a few other issues.
State economists have projected a shortfall of $2.7 billion, resulting from reduced business activity and income tax collections, for the two-year $23.7 billion budget from the general fund and lottery proceeds.
Education, health and human services, and public safety account for more than 90% of that spending. Virtually all of that shortfall affects the second half of the budget cycle that starts Wednesday, July 1.
"Luckily we are better prepared for this economic downturn than many others in my lifetime with state reserves and a rainy-day fund currently in place," Brown told reporters the day after the session closed. "We are holding off a special session for the next few weeks to give Congress time to take action. I hope — I plead — that congressional legislators will hear the call from states across the country and step in with additional federal support."
Oregon got $1.4 billion in federal aid from the $2 trillion CARES Act, but states cannot use that money to offset budget shortfalls, only to pay expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Democratic-led U.S. House already has passed a plan containing more aid to states that, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would give Oregon $3 billion now and $3.2 billion in May 2021. (Oregon's shortfall for the 2021-23 budget cycle is projected at $4 billion.)
The Republican majority in the U.S. Senate has balked at the $3 trillion price tag for the House's HEROES Act. But the National Governors Association, led by Republican Larry Hogan of Maryland and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York, have urged more federal aid. As states with Republican governors such as Arizona, Florida and Texas face rising coronavirus infection rates and renewed restrictions on public activity, states' finances will come into the spotlight.
The U.S. House plans to start its summer recess July 31; the Senate, no later than Aug. 10.
Rep. Tina Kotek
Capitol Phone: 503-986-1200
Capitol Address: 900 Court St NE, 269, Salem, OR 97301
On the table
"I will be expecting to call in the Legislature quickly to look at budget reductions and plan for the next biennium," Brown said.
Agencies already have submitted potential spending cuts totaling almost $3 billion — equal to about 17% of what they draw from the tax-supported general fund — and Brown has endorsed $150 million in savings so far. Lawmakers are unlikely to adopt some of the more drastic cuts, such as closure of 10 of Oregon's 14 state prisons.
Brown did pledge to try to keep the state school fund, which supports public school operations, at the $9 billion that lawmakers budgeted. It accounts for 35% of general-fund and lottery spending.
Brown can cut spending across the board, but only the Legislature can cut selectively.
Selective hiring freezes and some layoffs are in effect, but so far, employee furloughs or rollbacks of negotiated pay increases are not.
"Everything is on the table as we turn to tackling the budget," Brown said. "We are doing everything we can to squeeze every bit of toothpaste out of the tube to address the short-term budget crisis as we begin to plan for the next budget cycle."
Oregon does have an estimated $1.6 billion in two main reserve funds — one for general purposes, the other earmarked for education — and up to $1 billion in an ending balance to be carried over into the next two-year cycle. But lawmakers are barred from spending all of the reserves in a single budget cycle, and the ending balance is never zero.
Lawmakers were just starting to look at proposed spending cuts and hear public testimony, beginning June 17, when Brown called the first special session.
Said House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby: "While we passed historic bipartisan police accountability legislation, the session in many ways fell short, leaving Oregonians outside locked doors and the budget deep in the red."
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons added, "This session has been a huge disappointment because we did not get the budget done, and Oregonians were locked out of the process."
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said federal aid will make a difference.
"If that does not happen, we're going to have a much different special session, I'll tell you that right now," Courtney, who has been in the Legislature during four previous economic downturns dating back to 1981, told reporters. "I think it's too early to tell how difficult it will be, how bloody it will be, until maybe the middle of July."
Along with the state budget, lawmakers are likely to deal with the issue of a legal shield for businesses, governments and other organizations against some lawsuits stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
An effort by Republicans and 10 House Democrats to pass such a shield outright fell short of reaching a vote of either chamber. House members of the special session committee voted for it — Democratic Rep. Janelle Bynum of Clackamas, a small-business owner, voted with three Republicans — but senators voted 4-3 against it. It died because majorities were required on both sides.
"It's our job as lawmakers to ensure that organizations doing everything they have been asked to do by the government are protected from potentially devastating legal threats," Drazan said.
According to their proposal, filers of pandemic-related lawsuits would have had to prove "gross negligence" by organizations through "reckless, wanton or intentional misconduct" if organizations made good-faith efforts to comply with state guidelines.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat from Eugene and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that standard might jeopardize pending actions against violators such as food processors and nursing homes, where coronavirus outbreaks have occurred.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, announced that she would form a work group, not limited to lawmakers, to look at the issue and come up with recommendations.
Brown said the proposed legislative curb went too far. But she also said she recognized there are legitimate concerns as business activity and public life re-emerge from the pandemic.
"First, people who are injured under certain circumstances should be able to seek redress and hold those who created the injury accountable. Second, businesses across the state need a level of certainty," she told reporters the day after the session closed.
"My team is working with people at the Department of Consumer and Business Services to make certain they have the stability and the certainty they need to continue to operate."
The department is the parent agency of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, known as OR-OSHA, which is in charge of workplace safety.
The past two regular sessions broke up amid partisan acrimony and Republican walkouts that denied Democrats the necessary two-thirds majorities to do business. In 2019, Senate Republicans walked out over a commercial activity tax — Democrats gave up other priorities in return for a vote on the tax — and also on climate-change legislation. In 2020, Senate and House Republicans walked out over climate-change legislation, and Democrats adjourned the session a few days before the March 8 deadline.
"I really thought we would get into that," Senate President Courtney said. "I am so grateful we did not, and I and a lot of members were surprised. They came here fearing the worst because we didn't have much chance of getting ready for this."
Though many of the bills did not get as much of a vetting before the special session as they might have in other times, lawmakers were not totally unprepared for the session.
In addition to the six police accountability bills sponsored by the Legislature's nine minority-group members known as the People of Color Caucus, lawmakers passed some measures recommended by a special committee on the pandemic back on March 30. Other bills, including one on police accountability, were up for final votes in the 2020 session but died after the abrupt adjournment.
"The Legislature rose to the challenge of this moment," Speaker Kotek said. "We donned face coverings, maintained physical distance, and passed a series of bills that respond to some of the state's most urgent needs.... The first special session of 2020 was a success, and now we can refocus our energy on rebalancing the budget and protecting working people."
NOTE: Fixes attribution for House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland.
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