Oregon lawmakers opened their second special session of the summer Monday with an eye toward rebalancing the state budget and taking on a limited number of bills.
The Legislature's presiding officers can proceed to appoint the members of the special committee through which all legislation must flow, and assign bills to it.
The committee numbers just 10 members, down from 14 during the first special session. They include four chamber leaders: Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem; Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons; House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby.
Also on the special session committee are the three leaders of the joint budget committee — Sens. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward of Beaverton, and Rep. Dan Rayfield of Corvallis, all Democrats. The other members are Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Reps. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, and Greg Smith, R-Heppner.
The legislative website listed drafts of 13 bills, including some that will be necessary for rebalancing the state budget during the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in curtailments of business activity and public life.
Reductions in collection of personal and corporate income taxes, which account for 90% of the money that flows into the tax-supported general fund, will result in a projected shortfall of more than $1 billion in the state's two-year budget. Budget committee leaders have come up with a plan that cuts $400 million in spending, transfers $400 million from a reserve into education spending and makes other changes.
Of the other pending nonbudget bills, one would further limit, but not ban, police use of chokeholds. During the first special session, lawmakers modified a proposed ban on chokeholds to allow them in instances where police can use deadly force. The proposed change would require a verbal warning by police and a "reasonable opportunity" for someone to stop resisting before police can proceed with a chokehold.
Other bills would change some requirements to ease processing of unemployment benefit claims.
The proposed agenda omits at least two potential bills, so they may not arise during the session.
One would disconnect Oregon's tax code from three federal tax breaks for businesses that were included in the CARES Act signed on March 27. Oregon normally follows the federal tax code unless the Legislature makes specific exclusions. According to the Legislative Revenue Office, the bill discussed last week would recoup $225 million during the 2019-21 budget cycle. But business group have mounted opposition to the proposed disconnection. (A separate story is posted on the Portland Tribune and Business Tribune websites.)
The other would provide some sort of limited liability shield for businesses, schools and other organizations against lawsuits stemming from the pandemic. A proposed shield that would have nullified such lawsuits except in instances of "gross negligence" arose during the first special session but died in committee. Leaders, however, promised to work on the issue, and Gov. Kate Brown has a similar effort under way.
Cities, counties weigh in
Meanwhile, the League of Oregon Cities and Association of Oregon Counties have called on lawmakers to give them a larger cut of the state's $1.4 billion share of federal aid from the CARES Act. (Portland, Multnomah County and Washington County got separate payments totaling around $280 million.)
They said that if the state had heeded U.S. Treasury guidelines — which are not binding — they should have gotten a cut of $624 million, about 45%. But the Emergency Board, a group of lawmakers that handle budget matters between sessions, set aside $200 million for reimbursable expenses related to the pandemic.
Another $200 million will go toward state purchases for cities and counties. But last week, the E-Board blocked a move to set aside $105 million for bulk purchases by the state of equipment such as masks, gloves, gowns, shields and other personal protection items. (The board did approve $94 million more for testing and contact tracing — most of it going to county public health departments, community organizations and tribes — and $45 million for a program by the Oregon Health Authority aimed at racial disparities during the pandemic.)
The county and city groups want lawmakers to give them $200 million outright.
"We are hiring contact tracers, purchasing personal protective equipment, facilitating testing, providing information and resources to the community, helping vulnerable Oregonians and supporting our businesses that are hanging on by a thread," Gina Firman Nikkel, AOC executive director, said in a statement. "It takes resources to do all this work."
Mike Cully, executive director of the cities' association, said:
"City leaders are on the front lines of the response to this pandemic, know the issues in our communities and desperately want to partner with the state to help Oregonians cope with both
the health and economic effects of this catastrophe."
The money to state and local governments under the CARES Act can be spent only on pandemic-related expenses, not on budget shortfalls, and is subject to federal audits. All money must be spent by Dec. 31.
NOTE: Updates with session actually opening; corrects misspelled name; changes number of bill drafts on agenda (13) and adds reference to legislation affecting unemployment claims.
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