Oregon lawmakers prepare to tackle COVID-19 in special session


House leaders offer insight into what priorities lawmakers will address

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Oregon lawmakers will likely return to Salem within the next week for a special session dealing with the state’s coronavirus response.

The exact date is still pending, but House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner tells KOIN 6 News the session will “hopefully” convene by the end of this week or the beginning of next week.

House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner (Oregon State Legislature)

Federal officials reached an agreement on an unprecedented $2 trillion aid package last week, and Smith Warner said that will help Oregon fund hospitals and healthcare systems. Now she and other lawmakers are looking at how the State can fill in the gaps.

“I would say certainly our highest priority is to really stay focused on things that are going to be able to provide economic relief and household stability … access to food and shelter and childcare,” Smith Warner said.

The co-chairs of the Interim Special Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response outlined 47 possible policy proposals in a letter dated March 25. According to House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, the “committee was launched with bipartisan support and it ended with bipartisan support.”

House Republicans issued a list of priorities including support for “hospitals and public health systems to be able to make sure people have access to testing,” Drazan said. Republicans are also pushing for regulatory relief for businesses, such as reducing tax payments or permitting fees.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan (Oregon State Legislature)

“We really are continuing to have conversations about whether or not there is a need for additional supports for small businesses, maybe up to and including an adjustment to that CAT tax,” Drazan said. While no consensus has been reached on the 2019 corporate activities tax, Drazan said many of the Republican’s priorities were reflected in the joint committee’s work.

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

Unlike the federal government, Oregon can’t operate at a deficit, so lawmakers need to be mindful of budget constraints. (The state’s reserves do total about $1.35 billion, though)

They also need to be mindful of avoiding spreading disease. Smith Warner said they’ve already decided not to have staff present. Lawmakers will try to work remotely as much as possible, and only a few members will be on the floor to vote at any one time. They’re also aiming to conduct the special session in one day.

“There’s a broad bipartisan support for that package that we’re putting together and that’s the whole point is to … get in and out of the session, so that those policy changes and funding and other items can go out and start helping people as soon as we can,” Smith Warner said.

Drazan had a similar optimism that legislators will be able to work across the aisle.

“I hope that we really can narrow our focus to coronavirus response and then I think we will have a really successful special session and we’ll be careful and appropriate in our response to what we do on behalf of Oregonians,” she said.

The Oregon State Capitol in Salem, March 3, 2020. (KOIN)

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