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Gov. Kate Brown Will Call Oregon Lawmakers To Salem Next Week

The Oregon Legislature gathers in this February 2017 file photo

Anna Reed

The Oregon Legislature gathers in this February 2017 file photo

Such an in-person special session — coming as COVID-19 surges — once appeared unlikely.

Gov. Kate Brown is calling lawmakers to Salem on Monday for what she says will be a one-day special session to address the state’s most pressing concerns.

While remaining vague about exactly which bills she would like to see move forward, the governor announced Tuesday morning that she’d prioritize $800 million in “relief” for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and this year’s historic wildfires.

“It is clear that states must act on their own to provide a bridge until federal help arrives,” Brown said in a statement. “This is why I am calling on legislators from both sides of the aisle to come together in the best interests of the state.”

After meeting Monday evening, House Democrats said Tuesday morning they expect four bills to be taken up during the session: A bill that would provide $200 million in relief for landlords and tenants, a bill to help bars and restaurants that includes a provision legalizing to-go cocktails, a bill that would protect schools from some coronavirus-related lawsuits, and a bill to transfer $600 million in to the state’s emergency fund for COVID-19 and wildfire-related costs.

Senate Democrats are scheduled to meet Tuesday to discuss the matter.

While lawmakers have long said a third special session of the year was likely, until last week it appeared that any meeting would likely be virtual, with Brown tapping a never-used portion of the state Constitution to allow lawmakers to meet remotely. But support for such a remote session dwindled, as Republicans feared it could allow Democrats to abuse their power and some Democrats expressed doubts about some of the policy proposals being floated.

House Democrats, though, had consistently called for a remote session that would allow them to pursue many of the policies currently in the works next week. Two bills that fell by the wayside, lawmakers said, included a proposal to bolster the state’s emergency stockpile of personal protective equipment and a proposal to close some tax breaks included in the federal CARES Act passed earlier this year. Oregon automatically adopts tax benefits inserted in the federal tax code.

Even with a somewhat stripped-down slate of bills, the proposals being queued up for next week don’t appear to be free of controversy. Some Senate Democrats have been leery about a proposalthat would extend the state’s eviction moratorium, while paying certain landlords up to 80% of missed rent payments they’ve forgiven. Some Republicans have voiced doubts that such a provision is necessary, and at least one major landlord group favors another idea.

The notion of liability protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits also has been a sticking point at both the state and federal level. The proposal expected to be introduced next week would focus on schools, not on businesses, but has nonetheless been concerning to parents who worry their children won’t be adequately protected.

One proposal that has not been controversial with either party: transporting hundreds of millions of dollars into the Legislature’s emergency fund, which would allow for spending on pressing needs even when lawmakers are not in session. Lawmakers and the governor’s office have warned such a buffer will be necessary, with funding for contact tracing and programs to assist workers drying up, and a complex vaccine distribution process getting underway.

Legislative leaders in both parties issued statements Tuesday signaling support for the goals of the special session.

“There’s a lot to do...tenants, landlords, schools, food security,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. “We’ll get it done.”

“The third special session will give needed relief to hurting Oregonians,” said Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, adding that his party would push for increased liability protections for hospital systems next year.

Concerns about meeting in person

Even so, the notion of an in-person session has drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who see it as too risky at a time when the state has seen rapid spread of COVID-19.

The Legislature “should NOT meet in person,” state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, tweeted on Dec. 10, noting that Brown had recently increased restrictions on most counties in the state in an attempt to decrease transmission of the virus. “Legislators are told we don’t have to come if we don’t feel safe or have family members at risk. But not everyone has that choice.”

Lawmakers have met in two previous special sessions this year — one in June, the other in August. In both cases, lawmakers conducted some committee hearings virtually, and engaged in social distancing. In the House, members took turns coming into the chamber to vote on bills in shifts, in an attempt to keep safe.

Asked whether it would be possible for lawmakers to abide the Brown’s rules for Marion County, the governor’s press secretary, Charles Boyle, said the Legislature would be working with the state’s epidemiologist on proper precautions.

“We expect they will have health and safety requirements in place similar to other workplaces in Marion County and across the state,” Boyle said.

Marion County is currently classified as an “extreme risk” for the spread of COVID-19, a designation that has comes with many restrictions for capacity at workplaces. Additionally, masks are required in public spaces statewide, though some lawmakers have argued the governor does not have authority to force them to wear masks. During June’s special session, some Republican senators refused to wear masks on the chamber floor.

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.