Lawmakers deadlock on federal funds for personal protective equipment
Oregon lawmakers approved $94 million more to expand coronavirus testing and contact tracing, but deadlocked on $105 million more for the state to buy personal protective equipment for distribution to counties and tribes.
The deadlock Wednesday, Aug. 5, by the 20-member Emergency Board could be resolved when the full Legislature opens a special session Monday, Aug. 10. Lawmakers will meet to cut spending and to shift funds to eliminate a projected shortfall of more than $1 billion in tax collections for the current two-year budget.
The E-Board, which meets between sessions, approved spending of some of the money remaining in the state's $1.4 billion share of federal aid from the CARES Act. Because of their populations, Portland, Multnomah County and Washington County got direct aid totaling almost $280 million.
The $2 trillion CARES Act requires that aid be spent on pandemic-related expenses, not to offset budget shortfalls.
The Association of Oregon Counties and League of Oregon Cities, backed by business groups, argued that lawmakers should have carved out as much as $624 million from Oregon's $1.4 billion for their share of federal aid under U.S. Treasury guidelines.
The guidelines were not mandatory, however, and the E-Board decided in April on a different spending plan.
"I think it's a trend of overarching, overreaching state control," House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby said.
Of $200 million already set aside for local government pandemic expenses, the state reports that $76.4 million has been or is about to be reimbursed for their spending through June 30, leaving $123.6 million unspent.
Cities and counties said in their joint letter they would be willing to settle for $200 million more.
The letter said: "We ask that the additional $200 million in local share be distributed to local governments and that those local governments be able to spend those funds based on the particular needs in their individual communities for the full range of uses allowed under U.S. Treasury guidance."
Lawmakers debated whether the primary responsibility for coronavirus testing, contact tracing and buying protective equipment such as masks, gloves, gowns and shields should lie with state government — which says it can do it more efficiently and with greater purchasing power — or with local governments and community-based organizations.
"It's a paternalistic attitude by the state toward the counties," Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, said.
But Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said, "There may not be as much freedom for them to do with this money, even if the counties got it directly, as they want to use it."
Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said it might have been better back in April for lawmakers to carve out a larger share of its aid for local governments and community organizations. But he said an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Lincoln County — within his district — changed his mind.
"I said this county cannot deal with this on its own," Roblan said. "It took a while, but the state got involved, got the contact tracing going and other things happening and spent a lot of money. Had we given out the money to each of the counties, as we planned originally, they would not have had enough money to have done what they needed to do."
Lincoln County has been removed from the state's watch list for coronavirus infection rates.
Katy Coba, the state's chief operating officer and director of the Department of Administrative Services, told lawmakers that the state has ordered protective equipment worth about $100 million to be stockpiled at a warehouse in Wilsonville. Of the proposed $105 million in spending, $94.5 million was reserved for equipment for distribution to Oregon's 36 counties and $10.5 for the nine federally recognized tribes.
"Somebody is going to be on the hook for $100 million," House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said.
In the end, the senators on the E-Board deadlocked 5-5 — one senator left the virtual meeting before it ended — and representatives voted 6-2 in favor, with one absent. The motion failed because approval requires majorities from both chambers.
The full Legislature could resolve the issue when the joint budget committee meets during the special session.
On earlier votes, the E-Board split along party lines to approve $94.2 million more for expanded testing and contact tracing — $20.7 million for the state Public Health Laboratory, the rest to counties, tribes and community organizations — and $45 million for the Oregon Health Authority to set up an effort aimed at racial disparities in the pandemic. Johnson joined Republicans in opposition to the second item, saying that more of the money should go to coordinated-care organizations that oversee spending for low-income people covered by the Oregon Health Plan.
According to a webpage maintained by Multnomah County, Hispanics account for 11% of the population in four metro counties (excluding Clark County, Wash.,) but 37% of COVID-19 cases, and Blacks 5% of the population and 7% of cases. Whites account for 72% of the population but just 37% of the cases. Figures are as of Aug. 4.
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