Leaders disagree on invoking 'disaster' to convene lawmakers
The Oregon Legislature's top leaders disagree about whether lawmakers should meet in a third special session this year, this time under a never-invoked provision for "catastrophic disaster."
The call for such a first-ever session is up to Gov. Kate Brown, whose spokeswoman says the leaders need to agree first on a limited number of priorities. Among them: a continued state response to the coronavirus pandemic, the imminent end of a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions and recovery from the Labor Day wildfires.
The statement Thursday, Nov. 19, from Liz Merah on the governor's behalf:
"Oregonians are making tremendous sacrifices to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They are counting on lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to work together in the best interests of the state.
"The governor remains open to holding another special session if legislators can agree to a succinct list of policies that addresses Oregonians' most pressing needs, including the impending expiration of the evictions moratorium, while also preserving state resources to maintain vital public services and address the devastation caused by our catastrophic wildfire season."
Brown had mentioned before the Nov. 3 election that she would consider calling lawmakers back to Salem for a post-election session. She does not plan to do so before Thanksgiving.
Lawmakers have scheduled a round of virtual committee meetings Dec. 7-11 and Dec. 15-18. The 2021 regular session will start Jan. 11 with organizational meetings, but right now, the 160-day limit on the session will start Jan. 19.
The Oregon Legislature's most recent post-election special session was on Dec. 14, 2012, when then-Gov. John Kitzhaber sought and won approval of a tax break to keep the world headquarters of sportswear giant Nike in Oregon. The most recent November special sessions go back to the 1960s (1963 and 1967).
Supporting a session
Several groups, led by the Oregon Law Center, have urged lawmakers to meet to extend a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions scheduled to end Dec. 31. Lawmakers had extended Brown's original order by legislation through Sept. 30, and Brown issued another order on Sept. 28. But another extension will require legislative action.
"The eviction moratorium worked to keep people safe in their homes during the pandemic. If this essential protection isn't extended, families with children could face eviction in the dead of winter during a global pandemic," Sybil Hebb, director of advocacy for the Oregon Law Center, said in a statement.
"That is unsafe for them and our communities. It is critical that lawmakers act now to extend the moratorium through the school year and provide rent assistance to give tenants and landlords peace of mind that we can get through this difficult time."
Supporters also say they want more state money to aid renters and landlords.
The special-session talk started up Wednesday, Nov. 18, when House Speaker Tina Kotek called for invoking the "catastrophic disaster" provision for a special session in her reaction to the state's quarterly economic and revenue forecast.
Invoking the provision would allow a virtual session, without lawmakers having to come to Salem during the pandemic and would change some of the requirements for conducting business and passing legislation. But it also would restrict lawmakers and the governor in what issues they can deal with — and it can be invoked only once to deal with a specific "catastrophic disaster" (see sidebar).
"Our economic recovery is fully dependent on getting this virus under control," Kotek, a Democrat from Portland, said in her statement. "As the state's budget situation has stabilized and since Congress is unlikely to pass another relief package this year, I urge the governor to declare a catastrophic disaster so the Legislature can convene a remote special session in December.
"We need to utilize some portion of the state's reserves as soon as possible to help struggling Oregonians and small businesses through the winter months. I am particularly interested in seeing the state spend $100 million to keep Oregonians housed and stabilize the rental market as the pandemic continues into 2021."
Spending that amount also would require a session of the full Legislature.
The Emergency Board, the 20-member panel empowered to make budget decisions between sessions, has about $64 million on hand in the state emergency fund, down from an allocation of $200 million on Aug. 10. It can transfer money within already-approved agency budgets, and has spent much of the $1.4 billion in federal coronavirus aid from the CARES Act. But it cannot shift money between budgets or tap budget reserves or the ending balance.
Courtney urges caution
But Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest serving legislator, says he is opposed to bringing back lawmakers this year. There have already been special sessions June 24-26 and on Aug. 10. He has served in 23 of the 43 special sessions since statehood and presided over eight of them during 18 years as president.
"It came up because they know I do not want a session in this building," Courtney, a Democrat from Salem, said of the "catastrophic disaster" provision during a conference call with reporters on Nov. 18.
"I do not want, and I have not wanted, a special session in the building for the rest of this year after the election. I just thought it was too dangerous."
Courtney said he took his stance after a panel of doctors from Oregon Health & Science University advised him about the risk of someone getting infected during a session — but before Oregon's current spike in COVID-19 coronavirus cases.
"I never knew these numbers were going to spike when I took that position," he said. "But they have spiked."
Courtney said he does favor one more session of the Emergency Board. In addition to routine meetings after the 2019 and 2020 sessions, the board has met a record 10 times since the pandemic started in March.
The E-Board cannot pass legislation, however.
"I am not going to get into that discussion," Courtney said. "All I can say is that I hope we may try to use this new article in the Constitution, and lawyers will fight about how much flexibility we have under it."
He said leaders have requested the legislative counsel, who advises lawmakers, to offer an interpretation.
As for a "catastrophic disaster"? Courtney: "It's an open question of what that means."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.