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After A Dud Session, Oregon Lawmakers Agree On Emergency Spending

<p>Senate President Peter Courtney calls a recess immediately after senators arrive to the Senate floor on June 30, 2019.</p>

Senate President Peter Courtney calls a recess immediately after senators arrive to the Senate floor on June 30, 2019.

Turns out Oregon Republicans and Democrats can still agree on some things.

A day after Oregon’s 2020 legislative session officially expired — after collapsing due to a Republican walkout — lawmakers of both parties met in the Capitol to enact nearly $25 million in pressing spending.

The Legislature’s 20-member emergency board voted unanimously to spend $5 million to help the Oregon Health Authority bolster its response to the novel coronavirus, $11.65 million to ease damage caused by February floods in Eastern Oregon, and $2.7 million on new resources for emergency response in the state.

“I’m just really grateful you all came,” Senate President Peter Courtney said at the meeting, referencing the partisan gridlock that shut down the Capitol for the past two weeks.

“This is a mini-Legislature.”

Courtney wasn’t the only person with nice things to say. Eastern Oregon lawmakers showed their appreciation for the flood money, which is meant to help house displaced people, and repair damage.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, was among the lawmakers who walked out of the recently-adjourned session, over the Democrats’ signature climate change bill. He credited House Speaker Tina Kotek with prioritizing money for flood victims despite the tense atmosphere in the Capitol.

“It says a tremendous amount about your character and your leadership that you are willing to proceed forward to assist the people of Eastern Oregon,” Smith told Kotek, who did not look at him as he spoke. “It’s greatly appreciated.”

But the good feelings only extended so far. Also included on the list of proposed emergency expenditures was $5 million to move Democrats’ climate change goals. While Senate Bill 1530, a bill to create a cap-and-trade system in Oregon, died along with hundreds of other bills in the session, Gov. Kate Brown is expected to issue an executive order this week mandating strict reductions to greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

The $5 million proposed at the emergency board is intended to fund 10 positions in the Department of Environmental Quality to help create rules for a program Brown’s order will create. It did not sit well with foes of cap and trade.

“Under what authority does the DEQ begin rules promulgation under a program that has not been authorized by the Legislature or a vote of the people?” asked Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. She also asked how costs related to the 10 new positions would increase over time.

“You’re asking for an appropriation for an emergency that hasn’t been declared and for a program within DEQ that hasn’t been approved by the Legislature,” said Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass.

DEQ Director Richard Whitman answered that the need for the money would be spelled out in Brown’s order, which he believes is “imminent.”

The emergency board’s vote on the money was split, with all Republicans and Johnson opposing the expenditure, and all other Democrats supporting it. The measure passed.

With Republicans' return to the building Monday, it became clearer where at least some of them had spent their time away.

House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, told OPB that many of her members fled to Nevada after walking out. Some of that time was spent in Reno, Drazan said, but not all. Members decided to stay in close proximity to one another, to make sure the caucus was aligned and knew what was happening, Drazan said.

Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said he went to Idaho.

Baertschiger, meanwhile, remained elusive. Asked repeatedly by OPB where he spent the walkout, he would only answer “out of state.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.