Oregon lawmakers return to big deficit, police questions
SALEM — The Oregon Legislature will meet for its second special session of 2020 beginning Monday to try to fix a $1.2 billion revenue hole due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While some lawmakers predict the session could be completed within a day or two, that time frame could be lengthened depending on whether the Legislature decides to focus on the budget or to also include bills altering policy, such as ones surrounding police reform following more than two months of sometimes violent protests in Portland after George Floyd’s killing.
“I want to deal with the budget. That’s it,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. Democrats hold solid majorities in both the Senate and the House.
Courtney said he does not oppose the proposed policy changes surrounding law enforcement, but thinks the focal point should be on addressing the cuts and changes needed because of cratering revenues due to coronavirus shutdowns.
Lawmakers must decide how to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from state agencies, whether to close prisons, and how much reserve money it can tap to balance the books.
“This state does not have an approved budget. It is way behind on that. We have state agencies that have no idea what they will have,” Courtney said. “Even our schools don’t know. So we got to get this budget done, and it’s not that easy.”
In addition, Courtney said he is concerned about COVID-19 safety in the Capitol, specifically because there will be at least 200 people from across the state gathering. The Capitol remains closed to the public at this time.
“The virus is worse now than during our last (special) session,” Courtney said. “I don’t want us in this building any longer than we have to be because we are tempting our fate.”
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, released a statement echoing Courtney’s views.
“Policy bills should be left off the table until the 2021 long session when each policy can be properly vetted,” Girod said. “The intent of this special session should be to balance the state budget.
Gov. Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, are open to seeing legislation focused on police reform measures during the session. In addition the governor said she supports addressing business liability related to COVID-19 and coronavirus-related worker’s compensation policies.
“The Legislature made progress on policing reforms in June, but the work is far from finished, and we need to continue to build on the energy of this historic movement,” Kotek said. “I also believe more significant work can be done to help Oregonians access their unemployment benefits and disconnect from tax code provisions of the federal CARES Act in order to help preserve critical state programs.”
Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, who serves as co-chair on the Joint Committee for Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform, would like to see two police reform bills make their way to the floor during the special session. One would strengthen the new statewide ban on choke holds and the other would clarify definitions and procedures for the use of tear gas and less-lethal projectiles used by police for crowd control.
Manning said the term “crowd control” could now pertain to anything from a peaceful rally, a sporting event to a gathering where there is criminal destruction.
“This is the legal point that is really technical that we have to make sure that we are understanding,” Manning said. “Because, if we don’t get that right, then people will be able to draw their own interpretations and conclusions, and we won’t get what we intended to do.”
Both bills are building upon ones passed during the previous session in June. With that in mind, Manning said, the added measures should pass relatively easily.
Whether there will be talks about additional police reform measures and COVID-19 safety nets, lawmakers said they’ll be plenty busy with the budget.
Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who is a co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, spent the past few months working on the budget with other lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders.
“This has been one of the most meaningful, painful and exhausting processes, because every decision you make matters to someone in the state,” Rayfield said.
Tasked with filling a $1.2 billion budget hole, the three chairs proposed cuts totaling $387 million across state agencies and utilizing $400 million in emergency funds from the Education Stability Fund.
The total adopted state budget for the 2019-21 biennium is nearly $86 billion, about a 10% increase from the 2017-19 legislatively approved budget.
While the budget is extensive, complex and “hard to digest” there are some significant cuts that have caused debate.
Rayfield said their main goals when it came to the budget was to “minimize impact” and figuring out cuts that allow “the state to rebound out of a recession quicker.”
Economists predict the coronavirus pandemic and corresponding actions from state and national leaders to shut down the economy to protect public health will have long-lasting impacts.
The largest proposed cuts came from within the Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority. This included proposing that two prisons — Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend and Warner Creek Correctional Facility in Lakeview — close over the next two bienniums.
In addition, Rayfield said a chunk of proposed cuts are from not filling vacant positions and halting or delaying new state initiatives and projects.
The committee tried not to cut as much in housing, education and essential benefits.
“In this situation, I think we are doing our best to round the budget out and smooth those rough edges, but you never really know where someone might have an issue,” Rayfield said.
Sara Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.