Oregon lawmakers return to Salem Monday to address a $1.2 billion budget hole in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, with potential funding cuts in health care, human services and other state programs. It will be the second special session this summer. They also will decide on how to spend $105 million in federal relief funding to purchase personal protective equipment.
With the session expected to last two or more days, lawmakers also will face pressure to consider other issues from further policing reforms to liability protection for businesses and medical providers from legal action related to the virus. There also are bill drafts circulating that would modify state unemployment compensation provisions, making it easier for school employees to receive benefits and ease verification of incomes of contractors and self-employed Oregonians eligible for payments under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
Meanwhile, the legislative Emergency Board convened this week and, after spirited debate, failed to authorize $105 million for the Department of Administrative Services to purchase supplies and equipment for the continuing response to the pandemic.
Lawmakers allocated $94 million to the Oregon Health Authority to improve contact tracing and local COVID-19 testing. Another $45 million will go to address social determinants of health that have led to a disproportionate impact of the virus on communities of color and $29 million will support food banks and services for disabled Oregonians. The E-Board added a cultural organization to the list of previously approved recipients to receive relief funding.
The issue of state and local financial resources may not get fully resolved unless Congress and the Trump administration end their stalemate and agree on a new coronavirus financial relief package.
The E-Board meeting was marked by voiced displeasure over large sums being allocated with little oversight on how money is spent. There also was uncertainty over how much of Oregon’s $1.39 billion share of CARES Act funding remains to be allocated. Some of the money may be held in reserve for use in staving off large budget cuts because of reduced state tax revenues.
Local governments, along with tribal leaders, have pleaded with state leaders to allocate $415 million, their anticipated share of CARES Act funding. They argue individual communities have different needs and spending priorities, including in what kinds of personal protective equipment should be purchased. The debate led Democratic Senators Betsy Johnson of Scappoose and James Manning of Eugene to join Republicans on the panel in opposition to the $105 million DAS allocation.
The issue of state and local financial resources may not get fully resolved unless Congress and the Trump administration end their stalemate and agree on a new coronavirus financial relief package. The Democratically controlled House passed the HEROES Act that would provide $1 trillion in additional aid for states and local governments. The GOP-controlled Senate has offered a relief package without any new dollars for states and local governments.
In other state news, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld legislative changes approved in the 2019 session that apply to long-term Public Employees Retirement System beneficiaries. The hotly contested legislation requires employees hired after August 28, 2003 to participate in a cost-sharing arrangement to offset reduced employer contributions. It also places a cap on the final salary used to calculate PERS benefits. Nine state employees challenged the provisions as “taking without just compensation” and a breach of their PERS contract rights.