Oregon lawmakers OK millions for pandemic, wildfire costs
Oregon lawmakers have approved millions in state and federal funds to pay some of the mounting expenses of the coronavirus pandemic and the Labor Day wildfires.
The Legislative Emergency Board acted during a four-hour meeting Friday, Jan. 8, its record 13th since the end of the 2020 session and its last before the 2021 session gets under way on Monday, Jan. 11.
The 20-member board decides budget matters between sessions.
Leaders planned the meeting after the Legislature drew $800 million from the state's projected ending balance during a special session Dec. 21. Unspent money reverts to the full Legislature.
But they did so just before Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, a $900 billion coronavirus aid plan. It excludes general aid to states, unlike the CARES Act that became law March 27 and produced $1.4 billion for state government, but it provides more money for other purposes. It also extends the deadline for CARES Act spending by another year.
"We anticipated we would need to provide some bridge funding for the first three months of this year after the coronavirus relief funds expired," House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the day before the E-Board meeting.
"There are still some actions we should take related to wildfire and COVID-19 response that we do not want to risk not being able to do for the first three months of the year."
Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, are the board's co-chairs.
Among the new federal funds are $324 million for grants to school districts and for staff to help meet education needs during the pandemic — including a reopening of schools — and $116 million for emergency rent and utility assistance. The latter is in addition to the $200 million lawmakers attached for landlord and tenant assistance to a bill extending the statewide moratorium on residential evictions to June 30.
Another $100 million in state funds is earmarked for commercial rent relief.
Other money went toward payment of debris cleanup from the wildfires, food and shelter for affected people and recovery, preparedness and prevention by the Department of Forestry and other agencies.
(See accompanying story for the full list.)
Kotek said she did not foresee the Legislature having to deal with more issues in the current two-year budget cycle, which ends June 30, until lawmakers start in-person voting on measures in the spring. Among those issues are the rebalancing of several major agency budgets.
At its Dec. 11 meeting, the board had to cut several spending requests because it had drawn down $200 million lawmakers put in the state emergency fund at an Aug. 10 special session. Before lawmakers replenished the fund on Dec. 21, it was down to about $17 million.
The board approved all the items put forth, except for $4.5 million to rebalance the budget of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Lawmakers will have to resolve that gap in the spring.
Several items drew sharp words, including a $25 million request by the Housing Authority of Jackson County to acquire and develop property to replace some of the housing lost during the Almeda fire that swept through Talent, Phoenix and the southern edge of Medford. That was one of Oregon's Labor Day wildfires that destroyed the largest single concentration of housing — much of it inhabited by low-wage workers and older people — and left thousands homeless who cannot find or afford other housing.
"It seems there's a lot of favoritism going to Jackson County," Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Lyons said. Girod lost his own house in the Beachie Creek fire that swept through parts of Marion and Linn counties, east of Salem.
Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, questioned the cost estimates provided by the housing agency as unrealistically low.
But Rep. Duane Stark, a Republican from Grants Pass whose district covers part of Jackson County — though not the area devastated by the Almeda fire — was having none of it.
"We are desperate enough that we will take it, even though it is not my preferred method," he said.
Courtney said he responded to the request the same way he did when the Santiam Canyon School District, which covers Mill City and Gates, asked for state help to recover from the Beachie Creek wildfires. No schools were destroyed — the historic Gates School building, sold to Upward Bound in 2014, survived although other buildings did not — but most suffered heavy smoke damage estimated at $2.5 million that qualified it and other districts for emergency help from the E-Board.
"I do not know how much it cost and I don't care; it was just get it done," Courtney said. "All of Oregon was stunned by that fire. For the life of me, I am not trying to play favorites here. I am trying to respond to people who have been devastated and have lost everything."
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