Politics

Oregon lawmakers considering first-ever ‘catastrophic’ special session next month

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Nov. 19, 2020 1:46 a.m.

If Gov. Kate Brown declares a catastrophic emergency due to the coronavirus, lawmakers could likely convene the only remote session in state history.

House Speaker Tina Kotek motions to someone on the House floor on April 11, 2019.

House Speaker Tina Kotek called on Gov. Kate Brown to issue a first-of-its-kind "catastrophic emergency" declaration that would allow lawmakers to meet remotely.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

Oregon could mark a dubious milestone next month: The first “catastrophic” legislative session in state history.

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With COVID-19 cases rising rapidly, and a list of pressing concerns from housing stability to lingering wildfire damage, top lawmakers on Wednesday signaled potential support to try out a never-used piece of the state’s constitution.

Under that provision, Gov. Kate Brown can declare a catastrophic disaster, then convene a special legislative session under looser rules than lawmakers normally must abide by. Legislators likely would not be required to appear in the Capitol for such a session, eliminating concerns about spreading the coronavirus. The House and Senate also could operate without a two-thirds quorum of lawmakers in attendance.

That’s a very different arrangement than special sessions held in June and August, in which lawmakers were required to come to Salem to pass bills.

Voters approved this catastrophic disaster provision in 2012, with an eye toward a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami. But House Speaker Tina Kotek said Wednesday that COVID-19 is just as valid a reason.

“I urge the Governor to declare a catastrophic disaster so the legislature can convene a remote special session in December,” Kotek said in a statement. “We need to utilize some portion of the state’s reserves as soon as possible to help struggling Oregonians and small businesses through the winter months.”

Kotek specifically suggested spending $100 million to “keep Oregonians housed and stabilize the rental market.” That’s more than the Legislature’s emergency board, which has the authority to spend money while lawmakers aren’t in session, currently has on hand.

Kotek’s statement appeared to catch other top Democrats off guard.

“I got a call that the speaker had said something about a special session. I said, ‘What?’” Senate President Peter Courtney told reporters. “I also talked to the governor. I don’t think either of us knew that there was going to be a public statement.”

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Still, both Courtney and Brown held open the possibility of such a catastrophic session. Courtney said the idea had been discussed for the last week, after rising case counts made holding a normal session too dangerous.

The Senate president said that he is “adamant” lawmakers should not be called to the Capitol. And while he seemed to favor the use of the legislative emergency board, he said he could support a special session held remotely. Officials are still deciphering how exactly such a session would work.

“We were still trying to figure out an hour ago what it is,” Courtney said. “We think you don’t have to come into the building.”

Brown’s office said Wednesday that the governor “remains open to holding another special session if legislators can agree to a succinct list of policies that address Oregonians’ most pressing needs.” Press secretary Charles Boyle said Brown will consider “all options and will work with legislators so they can meet safely.”

In terms of likely bills, the governor and others have pressed for an extension of the current moratorium on evictions in the state. Brown’s office has also circulated a bill aimed at better preparing the state for wildfire, the Oregonian reported.

Kotek and Courtney on Wednesday both floated the notion of spending more to prop up businesses hurting due to the pandemic. Courtney praised Brown’s commitment Tuesday to spending an additional $55 million to assist those impacted by a new “freeze” on businesses and private gatherings.

“I’m so worried about businesses right now,” he said. “I really am.”

Other bills that some have advocated for a special session include a tweak allowing bars and restaurants to serve cocktails to-go, and a bill to ease the path of a new police oversight board Portland voters approved this month.

If Brown does declare a catastrophic emergency, it will likely be brief. Under the Constitution, it can only last 30 days, unless extended by lawmakers. That provision does not appear to impact an emergency declaration Brown announced due to the coronavirus in March.

A remote special session could also be a dress rehearsal for January, when lawmakers are scheduled to convene a months-long regular session. Uncertainty has surrounded that session, with some lawmakers advocating a delay until the risk from COVID-19 dies down.

But Courtney suggested Wednesday such a delay wouldn’t occur. He said legislative leaders were instead considering an array of options, including having lawmakers meet remotely for months while bills work their way through committees. Legislators would only report to Salem to vote on bills on the House and Senate floor under such an arrangement.

“We have now been informed by legal counsel that under the circumstances, and if we pass certain rules, we do not have to be in the building to do committee work,” Courtney said.

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