SALEM — Lawmakers converged on an eerily empty Oregon Capitol Wednesday morning, kicking off a special session of unprecedented breadth and many unanswered questions.
With arrows guiding officials down one-way hallways, elevators bearing new occupancy limits, and the public locked out of the building, legislators buckled in for a session unlike any in Oregon history. They are expected to consider nearly two dozen bills creating police oversight, offering coronavirus relief and addressing other issues.
“The other branches of government, as great as they are, are now on the sidelines,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told his chamber in opening remarks. “Now is our time.”
The statement preceded a frenetic day in which a special committee made up of House and Senate members passed out eight bills directly to the floor of their respective chambers.
Among those bills were:
- A proposal to tax cellular providers to help fund broadband expansion;
- A measure ensuring driver’s licenses aren’t suspended due to unpaid traffic tickets;
- Technical tweaks to a new business tax lawmakers approved in 2019;
- A bill enshrining an agreement between timber companies and conservation groups over aerial pesticide spraying;
- A proposal to create new meat inspection procedures in the state.
The committee was scheduled to take up more than a dozen additional bills Thursday morning, including police accountability proposals that have served as a focal point of the session. Just what changes lie in store for those bills was unclear Wednesday, though at least one major proposal — to give the state Department of Justice oversight into investigations of police killings — will likely be scuttled amid concerns lawmakers were acting too hastily.
With the vast majority of members in each chamber on hand Wednesday, most lawmakers appeared to be wearing masks or face shields — protective equipment that has been deemed mandatory on the House floor, but only strongly encouraged in the Senate. (Legislative attorneys have said a mask mandate from Gov. Kate Brown does apply in the Capitol, but it’s unclear how it would be enforced against lawmakers.)
Two Republican senators, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls and Brian Boquist of Dallas, did not wear masks on the floor Wednesday morning. That was a detail that slipped past Courtney until later in the morning, when a reporter asked about it.
“You just ruined my day,” he said. “Some of their members are wearing a mask and they should be wearing a mask. … We have individuals who just think they know, and they’re going to do whatever they want to do. It marred a perfect day.”
In the House, a larger concern was the ability of lawmakers to physically distance. The chamber passed rules granting leniency for its 60 members to attend floor sessions by watching from their offices, but they still need to physically enter the chamber to cast votes.
Even as lawmakers shuffled into the House galleries in shifts, distancing proved tricky to maintain, prompting House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, to admonish: “Six feet, people! Six feet.”
It remained unclear early in the session what kinds of agreement the two parties would be able to find over the many policies before them. That’s a stark departure from the typical special session, which sticks to one or two issues and is minutely choreographed beforehand.
In this case, proposals to extend state eviction moratoriums and create foreclosure protections — key goals for Kotek — seem particularly likely sticking points. And lawmakers have not seen final amendments to six police accountability bills that have been worked up in preparation for the session.
“If we hadn’t had the crisis we’re having with police, we would not be in a special session,” Courtney told reporters. “We better not leave without doing some of these things.”
The two parties did show good will in the Senate. After minority Republicans strongly objected to chamber rules they said left both their party and the public largely out of the picture, they agreed Wednesday to suspend a Constitutional rule that could pave the way for bills to be passed more swiftly.
No signs of such an agreement were visible in the House. Kotek said Wednesday morning she continued “to have very fruitful conversations” with House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby, on the subject.
“We don’t want to be here longer than we need to be,” Kotek said.
But Kotek and her fellow Democrats were apparently stymied Wednesday night. House members had expected the chamber would pass a number of bills onto the Senate beginning at 5 p.m., but that plan was ultimately scuttled, apparently because no agreement could be reached between the parties.
Legislators began their work in earnest when a joint committee set up to handle session bills began meeting mid-morning. Co-chaired by Courtney and Kotek, the panel’s members stayed in their individual offices for public testimony over a video feed. Then they gathered in a basement hearing room to actually vote on bills.
The pace was relentless. At one point – as lawmakers and witnesses argued over the merits of extending a tax for broadband development to wireless carriers – Courtney sought to move the proceedings along.
“I’m fighting the clock now,” he said, pleading with legislators to save their commentary for later.
A measure that would prohibit courts from suspending someone’s driving license for failure to pay traffic fines attracted the most controversy. It passed over Republican objections.
The measure, House Bill 4210, was sought by advocates for low-income Oregonians who said that losing a driving license can hurt the ability of many people to find or keep a job, causing them to spiral into poverty.
Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Stayton said he could support the bill if people who could afford to pay a fine can still lose their license. Drazan, the House Republican Leader, also suggested the bill needed more work before it was ready for passage.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, said she found it “very disturbing that we continue to tell poor people to wait for justice.” She and other Democrats pointed out that the bill was headed to passage at the regular session earlier this year before a walkout by GOP legislators ended the session. The Republicans had walked out to halt action on a major climate bill.
The bill on wireless taxes also split lawmakers along party lines. It would extend an existing tax that is now borne mostly by landline customers to also cover wireless users.
The money is used to help improve broadband internet services in underserved areas. Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said the measure would cost wireless customers about $4 per year for each line. At the same time, she said it would lower the current tax for customers who still have landlines.
Republicans, noting that the state would raise overall broadband taxes by $2.5 million a year, questioned the need for additional taxes.
The committee without objection sent a measure to the Senate floor ratifying an agreement between the timber industry and environmental groups over pesticide spraying regulations and the state’s rules for logging on private lands. The pact had led those two warring groups to back off putting several competing initiatives on the November ballot.
In their second hearing of the day, lawmakers were ready to take up one of the more high-profile — and potentially acrimonious — issues of the session: Whether to extend an emergency moratorium on commercial and residential evictions.
Under the most recent proposed amendments to House Bill 4213, tenants would be ineligible for eviction for nonpayment of rent until September 30. Tenants would be required to pay rents on time after that date, but they would have a grace period of up to six months to pay down their unpaid balance from the emergency period.
The bill is viewed as a bridge for helping keep businesses open and people in their home, at a time when many have lost incomes and have struggled to pay rent. But it’s met fierce criticism from landlords, who worry they will be left holding the bag for months of rent that are never paid, and suggest that some renters have withheld rent payments despite suffering no loss of income due to the virus.
Opponents supported an idea Wednesday to provide state funding relief for landlords who suffer losses due to the moratorium, and suggested rules that would determine whether a renter’s inability to pay derived from the coronavirus. It wasn’t clear that legislative leaders supported either idea.
“There are no requirements that tenants actually be impacted by COVID or that their inability to pay be related to COVID,” said Shaun Jillions, a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Realtors. “We would hope that it be a little more tailored.”
Realtors, affordable housing advocates and some lawmakers appear to agree on one possible change that would ensure people who buy a home that’s currently being rented aren’t kept from moving in due to the moratorium.
The bill was put aside, with more changes appearing likely.
Another high profile bill, House Bill 4201, included one of the most ambitious proposals of the special session. It would ensure that the Attorney General’s office took the lead into investigations into killings and serious injuries at the hands of police, not district attorneys within the county where the incident occurred.
The bill was hailed by accountability advocates, who say police killings are too often investigated in a favorable light by an officer’s peers. But it appeared Wednesday as if the measure would be shelved for now. The Legislature’s nine-member Person Of Color Caucus has proposed an amendment scrapping the measure and replacing it with a bill to create a committee to study police issues.
“We knew that trying to accomplish big legislation in a short amount of time was very dangerous,” said Bynum, a POC Caucus member and chair of the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon. Bynum, a Clackamas Democrat who is leading a work group on police accountability issues, said she supported putting off the measure in order to allow more dialogue.
“I wanted to leave the door open for the emotional pressure people might feel,” she said.
Lawmakers have not set a firm deadline for ending the session but have said it could last three days or longer.