Oregon Capital Bureau

SALEM -- After weeks of negotiations with lawmakers, Gov. Kate Brown announced a one-day special session of the Legislature will be held Monday to deal with COVID-19 related issues.

The need for state action has grown in recent weeks as Congress has failed to come up with a bill extending several key programs on unemployment, a eviction moratorium and small business subsidies.

Brown says she will ask for $800 million to help Oregon residents who have battled a pandemic and one of the worst fire seasons in state history. 

“Many Oregon families are struggling with unemployment, housing, food insecurity, and paying their bills, " Brown said. “We must protect Oregonians now, as we face some of our hardest days."

A possible third special session has been on the table since August as the likelihood of substantial federal aid such as the $2 trillion CARES Act passed in the spring were unrealized. 

The session is expected to:

Extend the state's residential eviction moratorium beyond its current expiration on Dec. 31 to as late as July 1.

Provide liability protection covering COVID-19 related claims for schools.

Spend $600 million for aid to those affected by the COVID-19 crisis and those hit by late summer wildfires that burned over 1 million acres in Oregon.

Allow restaurants and bars to sell cocktails to go as a way to make some money at a time when dining is prohibited or limited.

For the third time this year, lawmakers will come to the Capitol in Salem amid an epidemic which has only grown more threatening in the intervening months. 

Over the past week, the state has seen an average of 1,320 cases per day, and will soon pass 100,000 cumulative cases of COVID-19. Deaths have risen 32 percent in the past two weeks, and are now at 1,168 since the pandemic began. More than 300,000 have died in the U.S. and 1.63 million around the world.

Brown did not invoke a never-before-used constitutional clause that would have allowed the Legislature to convene a "catastrophic" session. A move favored by many Democrats, it would have allowed lawmakers to avoid traveling to Salem and instead hold hearings and floor votes remotely. 

The provision was created to enable the Legislature to meet in the event of a major disaster or event. Its genesis was in studies showing a 9.0 earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, just off the coast, which would kill thousands and make communications and travel impossible. 

Since lawmakers could be among the casualties or unable to contact Salem, the Legislature would work under somewhat different rules, including a waiver on the normal two-thirds quorum of each chamber.

Using the catastrophic declaration was opposed by many Republicans because Democrats hold a supermajority in the House and Senate that allows them to pass tax and other revenue bills without support from Republicans.

In the past two sessions, walkout were used by Republicans to halt consideration of bills they opposed, denying a quorum and bringing work to a halt.

Some lawmakers in both parties also worried a remote session would erode the discipline to do business quickly and adjourn. That could lead to the introduction of issues beyond those that have near-consensus as being able to pass both chambers and be signed by the governor.

A statement released by House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland addressed the goals — but also some of the fissures — leading to the session. 

“It is no secret that House Democrats have proposed a number of other urgently needed COVID relief bills," she said. "While I’m disappointed we won’t be able to consider them all in this special session, we stand ready to pass these supports quickly during the 2021 legislative session.

Smith Warner also said that while House Democrats would have preferred avoiding infection by having a remote session, she and her caucus were ready to come to Salem despite the personal risk of exposure to COVID-19

"Legislators have an essential duty to show up when our neighbors need it most," she said. "I am confident that robust safety protocols will be in place to ensure the health and well-being of everyone.”

Oregon and other state legislatures around the nation have watched as the Republican-led U.S. Senate and the Democratic-led U.S. House have been unable to reach consensus on relief legislation that must also be signed by President Donald Trump.

Among the issues hanging up federal action is a debate over the size of federal unemployment benefits, which had added $600 a week to state aid this year. The aid is set to die after Dec. 31 and Republicans want no more than $300 per week in any renewal.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said Republican leadership of the Senate wanted to give people less money at a time when the crisis was worsening.

“Millions of workers are thousands of dollars behind on their rent and utilities," he said. "The pandemic is worse than it has ever been. The $600 boost saved the economy and lifted millions of families out of poverty."

Even if there is no action by the end of the year, Brown said the state still needs a massive infusion of federal dollars to head off financial collapse for many residents and businesses.

Brown and other Democrats hope that the inauguration of Joe Biden as president on Jan. 20 will make aid for state and local governments a legislative priority.

But with just two weeks left until the end of the year, Brown decided the state needed to act to ensure a safety net should the laws expire without congressional action.

"It is clear that states must act on their own to provide a bridge until federal help arrives," Brown said.

Initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Oregon on Monday. But it requires a two-shot inoculation with three weeks in between shots. Giving lawmakers doses of a new vaccine would be not only politically troublesome, but useless on a practical level. 

The special session will be conducted with the Legislature elected in 2018. It will include several "lame duck" lawmakers who left office or were defeated in November, including Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend and Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, D-Astoria.

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