Last time the Oregon Legislature met, things flamed out in historic fashion for the second year in a row, as Democrats, frustrated by yet another Republican walkout over proposed cap and trade, abruptly ended the session several days early — leaving hundreds of bills in limbo.
That was March 5 — which feels like a million years ago. Since then, the need to reconvene lawmakers for a special session has become increasingly clear in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic crisis.
More recently, weeks of protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of four former Minneapolis police officers has led to calls for greater law enforcement accountability that politicians are finding themselves increasingly unable to ignore.
Governor Kate Brown announced this week she will indeed call for a special session starting Wednesday, June 24, to address “two urgent issues” facing Oregon: the continuing pandemic and police reform.
“We are at a unique moment in America,” she said.
She will ask the Legislature to codify into statute several of her pandemic-related policies she implemented via executive order, including the temporary eviction moratoriums and her order protecting CARES Act payments from garnishment.
She did not go into specifics on increased police accountability, saying only that “the public’s call for significant police reform is too urgent to wait until the next regular legislative session. It’s imperative that the Legislature take action on these issues right away.”
The state faces an estimated $3 billion shortfall in its budget for the coming biennium, spurred by record unemployment and a corresponding drop in income tax receipts, coupled with plummeting Lottery revenues. However, she said rebalancing the budget will wait until a second special session she expects to call later this summer.
“In the meantime, I will continue pressing Congress to support the state and local governments that are reeling from the economic downturn,” she said. “Unless the federal government takes action, states like Oregon could be forced to make significant cuts to schools, health care, and senior services.”
She also said she is finalizing a list of $150 million in proposed savings from the state’s general fund, expected to be released this week.
While Democratic leaders were quick to praise Brown’s leadership and proposed policy priorities, Republicans were more critical. House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby, blasted what she described as her fellow lawmakers’ willingness to concede legislative control to the executive branch.
“The legislature has been called into a session next week, but we have yet to see any of the proposed bills,” she said. “It has become increasingly clear that legislative leadership is willing to hand its authority to maintain a balanced budget and draft public policy to the governor. Even during a crisis, this is an extraordinary lack of accountability.”
With the state billions of dollars short in paying its bills, Drazan said lawmakers must tackle the urgent need to balance the budget and provide certainty for safety net programs, schools and other services, rather than “let the spending stack up and hope that the federal government will bail Oregon out.”
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, of Stayton, echoed those remarks, while questioning the idea of multiple special sessions — which are costly for taxpayers — in the midst of a budget crisis.
The format of such a session is also unclear. In her statement announcing the special session, Governor Brown failed to address how it would comply with her own statewide Covid-19 restrictions.
“Marion County is still in phase 1, and by Governor Brown’s own rules, gatherings of more than 25 people are not permitted,” said Girod. “The Legislature alone, without support staff, is comprised of 90 people. Why not address the budget, the Legislature’s first priority, instead of opening the door to costly follow-up sessions?”
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