The Oregon Legislature met for a Special Session that lasted late into the night Monday, August 10, as lawmakers from the Oregon House and Senate passed a dozen bills to address a $1 billion shortfall in the state budget.
Throughout the session, the House and Senate passed bills that will provide funding to Oregon public schools, tighten restrictions on police and corrections officers’ use of force and help unemployed Oregonians.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown addressed the media Tuesday, August 11 to discuss the outcome of the Special Session. Brown spoke on the lawmakers’ approval of using $400 million in emergency dollars from the Education Stability Fund to keep K-12 funding stable.
“First, I appreciate that lawmakers decided to continue our investments in K-12 public schools and early childhood education,” Brown said. “For a generation, we underfunded our schools, that changed last year with the passage of the Student Success Act.”
Brown stressed the importance of funding for public schools during this time, especially, as Oregon tackles the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) crisis. However, she stated that she does have concerns about the use of one-time funds approved in the budget.
“We have spent a number of years building up a rainy day fund and state reserves in order to weather this kind of economic downturn," Brown stated. "But that savings account is only so big. If we use a substantial portion of it now, the budget decisions next year become even harder. We already know there are more challenges ahead of us.”
Brown also expressed her disappointment in lawmakers for not following through on a plan to close two rural Oregon prisons, that she describe as being in “more challenging conditions.”
“For the first time in many years, Oregon prison projections are down,” Brown said. “We can safely close prisons, keep our communities safe and reduce taxpayer expenses.”
Brown also noted that a single prison bed costs the state between $39,000 and $50,000 per year and stated that she’d like to use those funds elsewhere, such as early childhood education. Brown said her administration would like to see an increased focus on crime prevention, drug and alcohol treatment and other strategies involved in the criminal justice system.
Addressing issues of police brutality, Brown applauded the work done on House Bill 4301, which limits the use of force by police officers.
“It’s a much needed step toward police reform,” Brown said. “This comes on the heels of five police reform bills passed in the first Special Session and I hope additional action will come in the weeks and months ahead.”
Lawmakers also addressed issues with the Oregon Employment Department, who has been swamped with unemployment claims since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two bills were passed Monday including Senate Bill 1703, which will allow the State revenue department and employment department to share data, so that benefit claims can be processed faster.
The second was Senate Bill 701, which will ensure Oregonians are not phased out of unemployment benefits even if they have a small amount of income from a part-time job.
There was a third bill on the table Monday (Senate Bill 1702), that did not pass. According to Brown, this bill would have made it quicker to process unemployment benefit applications from employees for public and private education institutions during the pandemic.
“This would have gotten more money into people’s hands more quickly and freed up agency employees to move on to processing other claims,” Brown said. “To see this bill, which had broad bipartisan support, voted down by three legislators was very frustrating.”
Brown also said that the Employment Department is working day and night processing thousands of claims and said it was “absolutely outrageous” that those legislators are trying to slow the process down.
Brown said there may be a third Oregon Legislative Special Session scheduled to address Oregon's continuing budget dilemma.
"It is dependent whether congress gets their act together and comes up with a funding package for states," Brown said. "If they do not, that will require us to take other drastic budget actions."
Other issues Brown said that could become priorities in a third legislative include workers’ compensation and liability concerns for Oregon school districts and businesses.