Image for Legislative Walkout, Coronavirus Produce Session of Disruption

The 2020 Oregon legislative session is destined to go down in history when it adjourns Sunday as the Session of Disruption. Legislative Republicans walked out, leaving both the House and Senate without required quorums to pass bills. And the spread of coronavirus, with a growing list of fatalities in neighboring Washington, has cast a pall over the entire state.

The GOP walkout to prevent a vote on cap-and-trade legislation has given Democrats a lot of spare time. OPB Capitol reporter Dirk VanderHart says Democrats have used the time to contemplate ways to prevent future walkouts that cripple legislative activity. At the moment, only three bills have made it through the legislature during the 2020 session.

Democratic ideas, VanderHart reports, include amending the Oregon Constitution to change the reference of “calendar days” to “session days.” Under current constitutional provisions, legislative sessions in odd cannot exceed 160 calendar days and in even years 36 calendar days. Oregonians would have to vote to approve such a change. A resolution to refer the change to the ballot this fall will be one of the legislative casualties in the current session walkout.

Negotiations have failed to end the walkout. Legislative Republicans reportedly have offered to return if Democrats agree to scuttle the cap-and-trade bill. Democrats reportedly have refused. Governor Brown and Democratic legislative leaders have declined to send the Oregon State Police to retrieve absent lawmakers, in part because many of them have fled the state.

The walkout has been cheered by groups such as Timber United that oppose cap-and-trade legislation, but it has been criticized by cap-and-trade supporters and others who disapprove of lawmakers receiving compensation when they have voluntarily stayed off the job. Service Employees International Union 503 has announced two initiatives to punish absent lawmakers. One draft initiative would make a lawmaker ineligible for re-election if they accumulated 10 or more unexcused absences. Another would impose daily fines.

The lack of legislative news has given wider space for coverage of the coronavirus as infectious disease inches toward an outbreak and poses a threat to Oregon’s hearty economy. It has become a near full-time job to separate fact from fearmongering. KGW-TV introduced a series called “Facts Not Fear” to answer questions and offer credible advice ranging from effective handwashing to whether it is safe to attend large events. Other news outlets are airing similar content.

COVID-19, as the virus is referred to, has prompted the temporary closure of a Lake Oswego school and a Pendleton casino. State health officials are preparing for a larger outbreak as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have modified the protocol for who can be tested for the infection. Governor Brown has asked the federal coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence for up to $10 million per month to support testing and treatment.

The potential economic impact of coronavirus has commanded headlines, though the impacts are hard to detect or predict. Global stock markets plummeted out of fear of major disruptions, even though the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates global economic impact from the spread of coronavirus at 1.5 percent.

Oregon state economists said in their most recent quarterly report that coronavirus has the potential to disrupt the economy, but it hasn’t hit yet despite draconian closures in China and South Korea to halt the spread of the disease. Economists said Oregon high tech and agricultural exports to China and the Far East may suffer a delay, but not permanent damage. Oregon exported $4.7 billion worth of goods to China in 2018.

Tourism is more likely to experience longer-term disruption as affluent Chinese tourists stay home and Oregonians delay or cancel trips abroad to locations such as Italy.

Despite the political divide present locally and nationally, House and Democratic leaders from both parties announced an agreement to fund $8.3 billion in additional aid to state agencies combating the coronavirus outbreak. Details are sparse at this time, but we hope the support also includes direction on how the US can acquire more N95 masks, the primary device used by healthcare workers to protect themselves from acquiring the disease. 

The Federal Reserve announced an emergency interest rate cut to cushion an economic impact from coronavirus. That sparked a one day stock market revival, followed by another plunge. The market perked up again today following the surprising results from Super Tuesday primaries where former Vice President Joe Biden exceeded expectations, slowing and perhaps blocking the pathway for the Democratic presidential nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders. If nothing else, the post-primary bump showed the coronavirus doesn’t have a total grip on the economic outlook.

Economists say regularly published economic data won’t tell the story of the coronavirus impact until well after the fact.