SALEM, OR (KPTV) –It was a marathon special session in Salem on Monday, with lawmakers working late into the night to tackle big budget problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The meeting, which became quarrelsome at one point, was the second special session of 2020. Lawmakers throughout the day focused on spending cuts, unemployment benefits, and police reform. The session was adjourned just before 10:20 p.m.
The public was not allowed to call in and testify, which drew concern from some lawmakers. In regards to Oregon’s unemployment situation, lawmakers discussed three bills: Senate Bill 1701, Senate Bill 1702 and Senate Bill 1703.
SB 1701 would help a person continue to receive unemployment support while they returned back to work. Rather than cutting them off from benefits entirely, they’d essentially be weaned off, helping people make enough money when they’re still working part time.
While legislators seemed to agree with the concept, they struggled with the fact this would be piling on more work for Oregon’s Employment Department, when the agency has struggled to meet the demand of claims since the beginning of the pandemic. The bill passed in the senate and is now in the house.
The acting OED director, David Gerstenfeld said the change would require time to implement.
“I think that there will be some increased people anxious either to get their benefits that they’re waiting on now, or for a change based on this increased earning ability before it starts reducing the benefit amount,” he told committee members Monday.
SB 1702 failed. It would’ve allowed school employees like janitors and bus drivers the ability to receive unemployment benefits during school breaks or holidays. Some legislators passionately opposed the bill, saying it singles out a certain class of people.
Gerstenfeld told committee members by choosing one particular body of cases, the bill will help OED resolve thousands of claims much more quickly, and there were lawmakers who agreed it would indirectly help others by passing it.
“There’s an extra hoop for these employees. 75% of these employees are going to get these benefits. So the benefits that they need right now are being delayed. Our job is to take care of these employees. Not passing this doesn’t do that,” said Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.
Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement saying, “It’s appalling that Senate Republicans today voted down a common sense fix to the unemployment process that would put money in people’s pockets faster. The bill would have eliminated red tape for education employees, freeing up staff to process other claims more quickly.”
SB 1703 mostly applies to self-employed workers, and would help them receive unemployment benefits more quickly. The bill would allow the Department of Revenue to share necessary information the OED has previously had to take time to gather and review from people.
Lawmakers also discussed the state’s $1.2B budget hole, considering strategies to help rebalance the state budget.
One method that’s been introduced, House Bill 4303, would transfer $400M from Oregon’s Education Stability Fund to the state school fund. It’s one strategy to help patch the state budget.
Lawmakers say this would assist in filling the estimated gap from lottery funds while, at the same time, leaving $9B for schools untouched.
Also, a bill to broaden the ban on police using chokeholds passed both chambers on Monday night.
The bill bans chokeholds under any circumstance, expanding the bill lawmakers passed in June. It would also require officers to give a verbal warning and a reasonable opportunity for someone to comply before any force is used.
These bills have to pass a vote in the senate and house before making it to the governor's desk.
Senate President Peter Courtney issued the following statement at the close of session on Monday:
“No one looks forward to coming in for a budget cutting session. I’m glad it’s over. We made some hard decisions, and we all took some tough votes. Today was long, but I think the Legislature served Oregonians well. We set the budget back on stable footing so that Oregon is ready to make a full recovery at the end of this pandemic.”
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