Republican legislators serving Douglas County think the governor’s COVID-19 executive orders are gone too far and it’s time for the Legislature to step in.
So far, though, they haven’t persuaded many of their Democratic colleagues.
State Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, said it’s not that he directly opposes Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders. The problem is that balance is missing, balance that the Oregon constitution requires, he said.
“These executive orders have allowed the Executive Branch to override existing regulations without any citizen input or legislative oversight,” he said.
At least five House bills have been brought forward this session that have attempted to rein in the governor. Some would limit the time an emergency can be unilaterally declared before triggering legislative oversight, while others would shield individuals or businesses from the governor’s restrictions.
Republicans last week attempted to push three of these bills out of committee and onto the House floor for a vote, but those efforts failed.
For now they’re stuck in committee awaiting further action.
House Bill 2713 would limit the governor’s authority during a declared state of emergency to 60 days, unless the Legislature authorizes a continued state of emergency.
Cosponsors of that bill include Leif, Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, all of whom serve districts that include parts of Douglas County.
On May 5, Republicans pulled the bill out of the Rules Committee to the House floor, but a motion to debate on it failed 25 to 31.
Smith is the chief sponsor of a second bill, House Bill 3177, that would limit the governor’s ability to impose restrictions on restaurants, gyms and indoor recreational facilities.
That bill is cosponsored by Leif and is in the Economic Development and Prosperity Committee.
After a two-hour hearing last week, the bill was pulled to the House floor, but a motion to debate on it failed on party lines 35 to 21.
Smith said he’s surprised this bill didn’t get any Democratic support, since the hospitality industry is diverse and tourism has been billed by environmentalists as an alternative to natural resources industries.
“Being a recovering restaurateur myself it’s maddening to watch so many families and so many businesses hurting and especially considering that we’ve been pushed into a hospitality driven economy,” he said.
Smith formerly owned the Port and Starboard Lounge and Restaurant in Port Orford, which had built by his grandfather in the 1970s. Smith ran it from 2002 until he sold it in 2015.
House Bill 2243, with Leif and Hayden as cosponsors, would require the governor to convene the Legislature before extending her own emergency powers.
Leif argued the bill would help restore checks and balances in Oregon and said so much authority should not be concentrated in one office without accountability.
The bill was pulled out of the Rules Committee to the House floor. An effort to persuade legislators to debate on it was also unsuccessful, but by a narrower 27 to 28 margin.
“There is a growing bipartisan support to pull back some of the emergency powers granted by the legislature to the Governor. At present, the efforts are mostly focused in the more rural parts of the state,” Leif said in an email.
Two additional bills have been assigned to committees that never have taken any action on them.
One of those is House Joint Resolution 18, which would have terminated the state of emergency on COVID-19. It was referred to the House Rules Committee in March. Leif and Smith were cosponsors of that bill.
Smith said he doesn’t think that resolution is dead yet.
“There’s tremendous amount of pressure to have a hearing, of course, on our side of the aisle. We’re waiting to see if we can and then if not we’ll try to pull that bill to the floor as well,” he said.
The other is House Bill 3243, which would have pushed the due date for paying COVID-19 violation civil fines back 50 years. That bill, with Leif as a cosponsor, was referred to the House Judiciary Committee in March.
Leif said state departments such as Oregon Occupational Safety and Health, or OSHA, are starting to change their COVID-19 guidelines without legislative input.
He said OSHA officials refused to appear at a hearing called by legislators recently on the department’s plan for changing its mask and other safety rules to permanent status.
OSHA has adopted a permanent rule that would continue COVID-19 safety measures established under a temporary workplace rule in November.
Despite the “permanent” label, the rule will be up for consideration again in July and regularly afterward until it is no longer needed and can be repealed, OSHA said on its website.
Smith said it’s the 90 legislators in the building who are supposed to make policies, but the governor and OSHA are making their own without checks and balances.
“I’m adamantly opposed to that and the super majority obviously isn’t. It’s very frustrating,” Smith said.