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Oregon Gov. Brown Suggests Special Session To Address Coronavirus Is Not Imminent

Gov. Kate Brown suggested Thursday she will not convene Oregon legislators for a special session in the near future, despite weeks of preparation by lawmakers to work up an emergency relief package for the state.

Citing more than $1 billion in expected emergency funding from the federal government, Brown said she’ll hold off on calling a session until the specifics of that aid are better understood.

“We want to make sure our scarce state dollars are focused on filling in gaps left by the federal stimulus package, not duplicating efforts,” the governor said in a statement. “Once we have sufficient clarity about the federal stimulus, I will call a special session and ask lawmakers to take further action."

Brown did not offer any possible timeline for that session and her written statement contained few specifics, but she's hinted she will consider executive orders that could implement proposals worked up by a legislative committee in recent weeks. That’s a tack she took Wednesday when she ordered moratoriums on commercial evictions and strengthened an earlier order on residential evictions in ways that were very similar to what lawmakers have proposed.

“My team is reviewing the policy changes recommended by the legislative committee to determine which are the most urgent and which can be accomplished through other means," Brown said.

The announcement marks an abrupt departure from what many lawmakers had assumed would take place: a special session called as early as last week in order to address the most pressing economic issues raised by the coronavirus crisis. That session was expected to be followed, perhaps, by subsequent sessions to pass additional measures.

Brown herself has suggested recently a session was imminent.

“We have to act as quickly as possible to address the most urgent needs of Oregonians, and we’re working with legislative leadership to make that happen,” Brown said on March 25. A day earlier she’d told reporters: “I think folks are targeting next week. I don’t think it has been determined in terms of a date or that week for certain.”

Brown has also said she would call on the lawmakers to allocate $250 million the Legislature’s Emergency Board could use to address the pandemic, and another $150 million that could be used to fight wildfires. Otherwise, the governor has said she would demand lawmakers be “extraordinarily fiscally prudent” in any session.

At least one legislative leader, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, believes that lawmakers should already have acted, and said Thursday she would push her colleagues to take steps to address the crisis even without a session.

"We can and should do more now to provide gap funding for essential needs like food and shelter while we wait for federal assistance," the speaker said in a statement.

Kotek had argued a session should be held prior to April 1. That would theoretically enable lawmakers to pass bills banning residential and commercial evictions and foreclosures and offering stepped up financial assistance for those in need.

But in recent days, the timing of a session had grown foggier, not clearer.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, confirmed Tuesday that no session would be called this week, but could not say when one might be coming.

“The special session will be called when the governor calls it,” Courtney said. “I’ve made clear to the governor that the Legislature will be ready and willing to help any way they can. It is the governor’s call to make the special session call, and that’s her prerogative.”

In the days since Congress passed a $2 trillion aid package to help states navigate the health and economic perils of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CARES act, a session has become a less urgent priority for Brown, legislative sources say.

Part of that is the new fiscal certainty offered by the federal stimulus. By one estimate the package could result in more than $1.6 billion flowing to Oregon, though Brown's office said Thursday that up to $2.4 billion could be landing in the state, between payments to state and local governments.

"Our office, state agencies, and local governments are working through the entire package right now to determine where funds will be going to help Oregonians and to identify gaps," Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, said in an email.

That money is arriving at a time when Oregon’s own financial picture is anything but clear.

Before the COVID-19 crisis, economists had expected Oregon tax revenues would come in nearly $1.2 billion above what lawmakers had budgeted in the current two-year budget cycle — a cushion that could be spent bolstering flagging state agencies, preparing the state to battle wildfires, or on an endless list of other priorities.

Today, all anyone knows for certain is that that picture has been dashed to pieces, with some theorizing the hit to state revenues could be as high as $3 billion this two-year budget cycle.

The state’s Office of Economic Analysis isn’t expected to release an estimate of how seriously income tax and lottery revenues have been impacted until May 20. That means lawmakers could be in a position where they’re spending to address the coronavirus pandemic without knowing how much they actually have.

As of Feb. 12, the state had $1.35 billion socked away in two budgetary reserve funds.

But while the federal aid will help paper over some of the state’s difficulties, it comes with questions.

Legislative Fiscal Officer Ken Rocco said earlier this week that “it appears that the funding in the Coronavirus Relief Fund could be used at the state’s discretion” as long as it was spent on costs incurred by the state’s response to COVID-19 that had not been budgeted for and occurred between March 1 and Dec. 30.

But Rocco said officials were still waiting on clarity as to how much money is actually coming. Others have also questioned whether it will arrive in time for Oregon to address its most urgent priorities.

"I'm gonna tell you, the money ain't here yet," Courtney said Thursday. "They've all said, 'We're gonna get stimulus money. It's gonna save us.' I don't believe it for a moment."

One more big question: Whether Brown’s able to spend the federal aid without the Legislature’s approval. Rocco, the top legislative budget expert, said Monday that use of the money would require approval from state lawmakers. 

The governor's office said Thursday it anticipates "needing to eventually increase Oregon’s federal receipt authority through legislative action," but did not offer an idea when that might be.

In absence of an immediate session, Kotek suggested Thursday she would work to convene the Legislature's Emergency Board, which can allocate money between sessions.

"I urge my colleagues to support this effort and find ways to make sure no Oregonian falls through the cracks during this crisis," Kotek said in a statement. 

That sentiment won tentative agreement from Courtney, who co-chairs the emergency board alongside Kotek. Courtney emphasized any steps the board takes with its limited funds must be unanimous. 

"If we could agree on some items then I don’t have a problem going in," he said. "This is a time we have to be together and stay together."

The board has roughly $50 million it can spend. It already allocated $5 millionto bolster the Oregon Health Authority's response to the virus during a March 9 hearing. It was unclear Thursday when the board might meet.

Putting off a session could forestall a legislative fight that has appeared likely in recent days. Republicans and business groups throughout the state have called for a delay in a new tax on businesses that went into effect at the beginning of the year, a move they say will help businesses remain solvent. 

Democrats have put off seriously considering such a step, voicing concerns that it could impact money that has been budgeted for schools. 

That issue aside, lawmakers have largely been in lockstep about the most pressing steps to take to address the crisis. While many of those proposals require outlays of cash, some could offer relief without spending state money.

That includes the protections for commercial and residential renters that Brown ordered Wednesday. Lawmakers have also recommended a temporary stop to foreclosures in the state, a tweak designed to make it easier for employees to take state-mandated sick time, and measures to improve access to the state’s healthcare system.

“I know those proposals have caught the governor’s eye,” said Courtney, speaking generally about the concepts created by a joint legislative committee. “Some of them she feels are very good that she could probably implement without legislative action.”

Exactly which proposals Brown planned to enact, if any, was unclear Thursday.

“Right now, the state is focused on expanding hospital bed capacity, increasing testing capacity, and procuring personal protective equipment so we can safely treat those who fall ill,” the governor said in a statement. “We are also working together to ensure Oregonians can economically survive during these difficult times”

<p>Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a press conference in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020. Brown put in a request to the federal government for more PPE, but had only received 25% of it as of Wednesday.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a press conference in Portland, Ore., Friday, March 20, 2020. Brown put in a request to the federal government for more PPE, but had only received 25% of it as of Wednesday.

<p>House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-N/NE Portland, addresses the Oregon House of Representatives in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks


House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-N/NE Portland, addresses the Oregon House of Representatives in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.