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Oregon Lawmakers Offer Relief For Renters, Restaurants As Protesters Vandalize Capitol

Oregon senators convene at the Capitol on Monday.
Dirk VanderHart
Oregon senators convene at the Capitol on Monday.

In a one-day special session, the Legislature also passed bills to help school districts reopen and increase spending on battling COVID-19.

Oregon state lawmakers offered relief for landlords and tenants on Monday, despite a disorderly backdrop that included protesters bashing in doors to the statehouse and shoving journalists.

In a one-day special legislative session called to address a number of pandemic-related crises, lawmakers also voted to protect schools from lawsuits related to COVID-19 and to bolster bars and restaurants by allowing cocktail sales to go.

Those proposals all passed relatively speedily. The real tumult was happening outside.

Shortly after the session opened, the Oregon State Police declared an unlawful assembly as a growing number of protesters demanded entry into the closed-off Capitol. Some pushed their way through the doors and — according to the Oregon State Police — twice sprayed police officers with "a chemical irritant," believed to be bear mace. The incident promised to reverberate into the future, with top lawmakers promising to investigate how the demonstrators gained entry, and discussing beefing up safety measures in the building.

“We will be examining the footage around the doors,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said Monday evening. “Someone let in unauthorized personnel. That’s serious.”

But inside the Capitol, lawmakers’ work continued largely uninterrupted.

The hallmark bill of the session, House Bill 4401, extends a statewide moratorium on evictions until the first of July. The eviction ban had been scheduled to lapse on Jan. 1.

The measure also creates a $150 million fund to help landlords whose tenants have been unable to pay their rent since the start of the pandemic. The measure would allow landlords to seek up to 80% of their unpaid rent. But in a provision that proved particularly contentious, they would have to forgive the remaining 20%. The bill also carved out $50 million to help tenants directly pay their rent.

One sticking point for tenant advocates: The bill will require tenants to sign a sworn statement in order to benefit from the new relief. It also frees up landlords to more easily evict people “for cause,” such as when they are planning to demolish a property.

Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, a key backer of the bill, noted the state was already in the midst of a housing crisis before the pandemic hit.

“Make no mistake if we do not pass this bill, thousands of families will lose their homes in January and it will be on us,” Fahey said.

That wasn’t enough to win over some skeptics, including Rep. Mark Meek, D-Oregon City, who echoed the testimony of many smaller landlords that they are struggling to pay their mortgages. Meek noted many landlords continue to have to pay property taxes, insurances and all the other bills related to their property and many now said they are at risk for losing their properties.

“Why is it that Oregon housing providers are being forced to forego 20% percent of their revenue and waive all their rights just to access relief?” Meek said. “No other industry has been asked to bear such a heavy burden in this pandemic.”

The bill passed the House by a 39-15 margin. Senators passed the bill 18-6, with one Republican voting with Democrats. Several legislators in both chambers were excused from Monday’s session.

Lawmakers also offered help to bars and restaurants, which have labored under an array of shifting state requirements for how they are allowed to operate safely. With the passage of Senate Bill 1801, those establishments will be able to sell cocktails to-go, with a limit of two per substantive food item. The bill, backed by the state’s restaurant and lodging association, also limits the fees that third-party apps like Postmates or DoorDash can charge restaurants for their services.

The new permissions under the bill take effect under passage, and will expire 60 days after the end of the emergency declaration Gov. Kate Brown imposed in response to COVID-19. That declaration is currently scheduled to expire in March, but Brown has extended it repeatedly.

The other big-ticket agenda item for lawmakers was funneling $800 million to the state’s emergency fund, which can be accessed by a special legislative committee when the Legislature is not in session.

The bulk of that money, $400 million, will be dedicated toward COVID-19 related costs, including the ability to continue contact tracing programs and ensure distribution of a vaccine. Another $100 million will go toward helping those devastated by this summer’s wildfires and other wildfire-preparedness costs. Lawmakers will reserve $100 million for any unseen needs, and the final $200 million will be spent assisting landlords and tenants in line with the eviction bill lawmakers passed separately.

The $800 million budget bill is hefty by the standards of the emergency fund. It was painted by lawmakers as a necessary stop gap, as federal funding that has paid for many of the state’s COVID-19 initiatives dries up.

Adding to the fiscal complexity, lawmakers passed the bill on a day when Congress announced it had negotiated a new $900 billion aid package. Oregon is expected to reap more than $200 million of that money, lawmakers said, but officials were still looking into how that money can be used — whether to help renters, pay landlords, or other purposes.

With the session’s final bill, House Bill 4402, lawmakers offered liability protections for schools against COVID-related lawsuits. Many school districts do not have liability insurance policies that would cover the risk of the spread of the virus, and school officials have voiced concern that one lawsuit could financially devastate their district and further prevent a school’s ability to reopen.

Republican Cheri Helt, of Bend, said the legislation was needed to give school districts the ability to reopen.

“If New York City can bring back their kids in schools, we can too,” she said.

In the Senate, Republican leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons, cheered passage of the bill.

“This bill is a needed first step to get schools reopened,” Girod said in a statement. “The next steps should be bumping educators further ahead in line for COVID-19 vaccinations to get Oregon kids back in the classroom even sooner.”

Democratic leaders hailed the session as a success, saying legislators had taken appropriate emergency measures, and that more work would occur in coming weeks.

“I’ll just say we had a pretty good day and we’ll see what tomorrow brings,” Courtney said.

“We don’t sleep,” Kotek said. “We’re going to be back at this next week.”

Despite its relative smoothness, the session left several proposals on the table that lawmakers in both parties had hoped to push across the finish line.

Republicans and some Democrats had proposed a bill that would have extended the same liability protections legislators granted school districts to healthcare providers. But that proposal failed to make it out of committee, when House Democrats blocked its passage because of concerns it would not adequately protect whistleblowers who complained about dangerous work conditions.

“I thought we were gonna get there,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who sponsored the bill. “That’s one I’ll always think about.”

Another proposal that would have offered tax credits to landlords who’ve had to forego rent also failed to generate enough Democratic support.

Those proposals will likely not be shelved for long. Lawmakers are expected to hear more about them in the regular legislative session that convenes for six months beginning in January.

Also likely to be up for consideration are ways to enhance safety in the Capitol, following demonstrations that led to vandalism of the building and prompted police to respond with crowd-control munitions.

In a post-session press conference, Courtney and Kotek acknowledged that one of demonstrators’ central grievances —the closure of the Capitol for health safety reasons —was likely to remain well into next year’s legislative session.

Once that changes, though, Courtney suggested that the Legislature might need to put new measures into place.

“If you’ve been in the Capitol, you can walk right into my office or any member’s office,” he said. “Those days might be coming to an end.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart, Lauren Dake