Image for Legislative Special Session Looms to Address COVID-19 Stress

Chances are good the Oregon legislature will go into special session next week to vote on a coronavirus relief measure, which is still in its gestation period. There appears to be broad bipartisan agreement to ensure Oregonians have adequate food, shelter and healthcare to get through the crisis.

A joint legislative special committee has held four hearings and will recommend legislative action based on extensive testimony of what is needed. The list of options is long.

Governor Brown and Senate and House leaders will decide what to include in what may be the first in a series of relief measures enacted over several special sessions. Their decision will no doubt take into account the relief measures contained in the $2 trillion stimulus bill Congress is expected to approve this week, which includes expanded unemployment benefits, direct payments to middle and lower-income Americans and financial assistance to states.

Concerns are split between bolstering public health and patching a hemorrhaging economy. One investment target might be mental health services, which are being further strained by the stress of losing a job and being isolated from friends and family members. Another target could be expansion of state family leave policies to address pressure on parents who are caring for children at home because public schools are closed.

On the economic front, lawmakers are expected to recommend steps such as providing a cushion for employers who will face higher unemployment insurance rates following layoffs and a grace period to pay health insurance premiums for workers. A moratorium on commercial real estate evictions and increased access to residential rental and mortgage assistance have been suggested.

The state could buy food for food banks and accelerate eligibility for SNAP benefits. There also has been a suggestion to modify the new commercial activity tax (CAT) to make its application to different industries clearer and to ease quarterly payment requirements. There also was a suggestion to delay CAT implementation, which could have an effect on public school budgets.

Other ideas include super-siting for homeless shelters, broader scope of practice authorization for physician assistants and redirection of locally imposed transient lodging taxes. Curbside liquor delivery is also on the list.

Brown may be able to take some actions, such as extending the time to file state income tax returns or temporarily blocking residential rental evictions, on her own through executive orders under her emergency powers.

Declining state tax revenue will complicate the challenge and narrow options because there will be less money to throw at problem areas. That will require prioritization and potentially sequenced state assistance over multiple special sessions.

Next week’s anticipated special session will occur with the Capitol closed to the public. The hearing on the measure or measures introduced in the special session will be live streamed. Lawmakers will have to enter the Capitol to cast floor votes.