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Two Senate bills aim to help Oregonians awaiting unemployment insurance benefits

The second Special Session called by Governor Brown to deal with the coronavirus-caused revenue shortfall was completed in a one-day marathon effort.

Brad WittThe Oregon Constitution requires legislators to approve a balanced budget, and so that was our top priority this week, as it is unlikely that Oregon will receive additional pandemic-related stimulus federal funds.

Fortunately, we have healthy reserves, so instead of having to cut nearly $1.2 billion dollars, we were able to draw $400 million from the education reserve fund to keep our K-12 public school funding intact. We also tapped $200 million from funds set up to help pay down our PERS deficit.

The budget bills we approved will reduce general fund spending by $362 million, with the most reductions coming from human services programs. Earlier this summer, there were proposals to close the Correctional Facilities at North Bend and Lakeview, but budget writers cited the importance of maintaining those facilities that provide living-wage jobs in their rural areas and removed those institutions from the cut list.

While our primary focus was budgetary, we also passed two Senate bills aimed at helping Oregonians who have been waiting weeks and months for their unemployment insurance benefits.

SB 1701: Raises the cap on how much a worker can earn before their earning affects their unemployment insurance benefit amount. Currently the cap is tied to either 10 times the minimum wage, or a third of the individual's total benefit amount. The benefit is lowered dollar for dollar for money earned over the cap. SB 1701 raises the cap to a flat $300.

SB 1703: Allows the Department of Revenue to share income-related information with the Employment department to expedite confirmation of income and benefits determinations for those who qualify for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. PUA payments are for those who are self-employed, do gig work, or are contractors who have lost their jobs and wages but do not typically qualify for unemployment benefits.

I was happy to support these bills that will help the thousands of workers who have been struggling to get the unemployment benefits they have earned and are due.

Another policy issue we took up during the day-long second Special Session is the issue of limiting police use of deadly force and barring most usage of chokeholds. This measure easily passed the House floor vote, with bipartisan agreement that the change is meant to increase professionalism in law enforcement and to bring Oregon up to the standards reflected in U.S Supreme Court rulings from the 1980s.

The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions required that the Capitol remains closed to the public, but I believe we missed the opportunity to do more to allow public participation. The budget is balanced, and the one-day second Special Session has been described as "whirlwind," but legislators are elected to do the work of our constituents, and public access and testimony — even when done remotely — is an important tenet of our democracy.

Rep. Brad Witt, House District 31

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