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Politics & Government

Tensions On Display As Oregon Lawmakers Conclude Hectic Special Session In One Day


Oregon lawmakers powered through a one-day special session Monday, closing a billion-dollar budget hole and passing bills to help unemployed workers and curtail police abuses.

Amid bipartisan concerns over rushed process, and uncommonly pointed shots between Senate Republicans and Gov. Kate Brown, lawmakers passed 11 bills in about 15 hours. The public was not allowed into the Capitol due to coronavirus concerns, and lawmakers only accepted written testimony on the bills — including several that had never been given a public hearing.

“When you’re in a crisis that we’re all in right now, sometimes you have to take actions that you normally wouldn’t take,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, addressing concerns over a lack of public involvement. “You’ve got to move.”

The session — the second time Brown has called lawmakers in for extracurricular work in as many months — was primarily focused on dealing with a $1.2 billion hole in the current two-year budget. And although lawmakers moved swiftly, the proceedings weren’t without controversy.

As the afternoon wore on, Courtney warned that lawmakers were “grumpy and they are getting grumpier.”

It turned out he was right.

Shortly after state senators took to the floor to cast their votes, the conversation quickly turned political when Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod criticized the governor for a statement she sent out blaming Republicans for killing one of her favored bills.

That proposal, Senate Bill 1702, would have helped thousands of school employees more quickly access unemployment benefits. But it died in committee when a three-person bloc, including a key Democrat, refused to support it.

“We just got blasted by the governor,” said Girod, R-Lyons, noting that two Republicans and one Democrat had killed the bill. “My conclusion is the number of Republicans equals the IQ of the governor.”

Shortly after those comments, state Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, castigated Portland-area lawmakers for not criticizing the vandalism that has come with the nightly protests in the city. That led to a tense back-and-forth that ended when Courtney threatened to adjourn.

The session’s central focal point, balancing the state budget, was never in doubt. Lawmakers in both parties had been clamoring for weeks to deal with the deficit created by the coronavirus pandemic.

But it became clear over the weekend that leading Democrats would put forward other bills over Republican objections that the session be limited to budget matters.

As a result, GOP legislators wasted no opportunity to condemn what they said was an overall lack of transparency of the process. Several lawmakers weren’t even sure what policy proposals would be considered until Monday morning. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, surprised some again when she announced the public would not have a chance to offer verbal testimony..

As lawmakers discussed the approximate $400 million in cuts and administrative savings they had identified to help close the budget gap, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, said legislators’ should have found a way to better involve the public.

“These cuts impact programs that matter to people and as we go through this process … It’s very important to have the context of public input,” she said.

Girod echoed the sentiment later in the hearing.

“The process just absolutely smells,” he said, pointing to state policies that allow people in many counties to patronize restaurants or bars. “There’s no reason why we can’t have the public in these meetings.”

Lawmakers managed to largely preserve recent investments made to the state’s public school system. By tapping into a $400 million state education reserve fund, they managed to keep a $9 billion fund for schools intact.

Lawmakers also held off closing two state prisons, which at one point was discussed.

And although many agreed the budget managed to stave off draconian cuts, some felt it hit certain programs too hard. Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, voted against the budget because he felt it disproportionately harmed a fund that helps Oregon high school graduates pay for community college.

Non-budget bills put forward by Democrats created more opportunity for controversy. Though most legislative leaders — including Courtney — insisted last week the session should not include unrelated policy bills, negotiations over the weekend resulted in five notable proposals being brought forward.

Three of the bills aimed to help unemployed workers, many of whom have seen their weekly benefit checks delayed for weeks or months. Just two of the proposals wound up passing.

The first bill, SB 1701, will allow unemployed workers to make up to $300 a week and still qualify for full unemployment benefits.

That proposal, suggested by Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, more than doubles the amount part-time workers can earn without losing benefits. It had strong backing from the state’s restaurant and hotel owners, who say they’re not able to offer workers full hours, and worry too-little pay will prevent employees from returning.

The concept saw broad support from lawmakers in a legislative committee Monday, but many became concerned by an estimate that the change could take nearly 300 hours to program into the state’s inflexible and problem-plagued computer system.

David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department, told lawmakers that change could detract from other priorities, as the agency scrambles to modify its computer program. Gerstenfeld added that the agency would prioritize any other coding projects that would result in a greater number of people receiving benefits. As a result, he could not say when the change might be complete.

“We certainly feel the pressure and are doing everything we can to get everything implemented,” Gerstenfeld.

Lawmakers also passed SB 1703, which allows the state’s Department of Revenue to share information about self-employment income with the OED. The tweak is intended to help employment officials verify claims under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA.

But Democratic leaders could not muster support for a third bill that was crafted to help some school employees to more easily access benefits.

The bill Senate Bill 1702 would have relieved the OED from needing to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether those employees were likely to have their normal jobs resume at the end of the summer break, a factor which typically disqualifies them from payments.

The bill ran into a crucial skeptic in state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who said she understood the logic of the bill, but worried it would create negative perceptions.

“I still cannot get past the notion that this creates an added benefit for a certain class and gets them passed through faster,” Johnson said.

Johnson joined the two Republican senators on the committee in opposing the bill. That meant a majority of senators on the committee were against the measure, dooming its chance of advancing.

Lawmakers found far more common ground in a bill that limits use of force by police.

That bill, House Bill 4301, was the product of weeks of work by a legislative committee convened in late June. The bill further tightens the rules around chokeholds set during a special session in June. Under the new bill, police are prohibited from using the holds except for instances when they are trying to defend themselves or another person.

The bill also folded in new rules for when police can use physical force — which under Oregon law includes use of pepper spray or a stun gun — or deadly physical force. In order to deploy deadly physical force under the new rules, police must believe a person “poses an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury” and that such force is necessary to make an arrest, prevent escape, or to defend the officer or another person. The bill similarly limits when an officer may use physical force to situations where they believe injury is imminent, or to make an arrest or prevent escape.

In any case of using force, police would be required to consider alternatives and give a warning if they have “a reasonable opportunity to do so.”

The bill had support from sheriffs, police chiefs, and the Oregon State Police. But it drew criticism from some Republicans, who depicted it as a rushed fix of a chokehold policy lawmakers passed in June. Girod provoked passionate response in the Senate when he announced that he was voting against the bill “to fire a shot across the bow that, for now, this is enough” bills on policing.

Sens. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, and James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, who are both Black, replied that it would not be the last bill the Legislature takes up in coming months.

“I hear people saying, ‘Too much, enough,” Manning said. “People like me have been saying ‘too much, enough’ for years. Some people don’t have the ability to say, ‘Too much, enough.’”

Lawmakers also made several notable changes to the Legislature’s rules for dealing with harassment. As OPB has reported, the current rules contain notable holes that give harassment victims little say in whether their experiences are dredged up in a public hearing.

Among a long list of changes, lawmakers decided to give such “impacted parties” a say in whether their cases move forward to a public hearing, or are resolved another way. The bill also ensures lawmakers and other officials are not required to self-report allegations against them — a provision that appears tied to a case in which state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said she was forced to report complaints about her from a staffer.

“This is what we’ve determined… is a very large void that we need to start opening up to further discussions, to put a foundation in place,” Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said of the resolution. “That’s what this would do.”

But the proposal drew concerns from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who said people accused of wrongdoing are not adequately protected under Capitol policies.

“I’m still very uncomfortable with a process that, while well intentioned, still can amount to a public lynching,’ said Rep. Janelle Bynum. D-Clackamas. “I remain unsatisfied with the protections afforded to someone who is accused of something pretty serious.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting