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Special session makes sense for Oregon

Oregon lawmakers will convene Monday in Salem for a one-day special session. That’s a prudent move, given Congress’ failure to reach agreement on a new COVID stimulus package to extend soon-to-expire assistance to jobless workers and struggling businesses.

Congressional leaders were meeting late Tuesday, and there was hope a deal might be reached on a compromise package that the House could vote on today. If help is forthcoming from Washington, so much the better. But details of what that help would look like were still unclear. Oregon legislators should do what they can for their constituents without waiting on federal assistance.

A state moratorium preventing landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent because of the pandemic expires Dec. 31, raising the specter of people being forced out of their homes in the dead of winter. Federal unemployment benefits also run out this month, potentially putting more tenants at risk of not making rent.

The Oregon session will reportedly take up four proposals on Monday, likely wrapped into one bill. Committees will meet this week to hammer out details.

One proposal would extend the eviction moratorium through June and create a $150 million assistance fund for landlords to compensate them for rent they have not been able to collect. Help for strapped landlords is as important as assistance for renters.

Another proposal would protect schools and community colleges that follow public health guidelines from being sued if students, staff or visitors contract the virus. A third measure would allow restaurants to sell sealed mixed drinks to go along with takeout food orders and limit the fees third-party delivery services charge restaurants.

A fourth proposal would allocate $600 million to the Legislative Emergency Board that distributes money in between sessions. That money would support contact tracing and vaccine distribution, wildfire prevention and preparedness and the general emergency fund.

This carefully targeted legislation is appropriate given the approaching expiration of assistance. Anything beyond that can be addressed when the 2021 legislative session convenes Jan. 11.

It is also appropriate that Gov. Kate Brown chose not to declare a first-ever catastrophic disaster, which would have allowed legislators to meet remotely. That might sound prudent given the coronavirus restrictions, but the law was designed to be invoked after a major Cascadia earthquake, and would change quorum rules to allow business to be conducted with less than two-thirds of each chamber participating.

Minority Republicans expressed concern that Democrats might take advantage of the untested format, not an unreasonable fear. The minority party should refrain from mounting a walkout, as it did during previous sessions. Oregonians are hurting from the pandemic, and the Legislature needs to do what it can to ease that burden.