Governor Brown seeks approval of aid due to pandemic and wildfires
By SARA CLINE Associated Press/Report for America
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Gov. Kate Brown is calling Oregon lawmakers back to the Capitol for a one-day special session, asking them to approve hundreds of millions of dollars to aid people and communities struggling with the pandemic and the effect of this summer’s devastating wildfires.
Some of the bills expected to be discussed at the Dec. 21 session include renter and landlord relief, a restaurant bill that will allow to-go cocktails, school liability protections and an additional allocation to the state’s Emergency Fund.
“Oregon families are struggling with unemployment, housing, food insecurity, and paying their bills — and those most impacted are the same people who are often left behind, including rural, Black, Indigenous, Latino/Latina/Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Tribal communities,” the Democrat said in a statement.
Since the start of the pandemic in Oregon, more than 96,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed and more than 1,200 people have died. Shutdowns and restrictions imposed because of COVID-19 have also caused widespread job losses and business closures.
In addition, deadly wildfires in late summer also burned about 1,500 square miles across the state and destroyed more than 2,000 residences.
These devastating events have financially impacted Oregonians across the state.
In a statement Tuesday, Brown said the Legislature would consider $800 million in relief funding.
One of the main proposals that lawmakers have been discussing this month is a $200 million package for landlord and tenant relief — providing $50 million for rental assistance to tenants for the months ahead and $150 million to small landlords for previously unpaid rent.
Advocates for housing also implored lawmakers to extend an eviction moratorium, saying up to 40,000 households faced eviction.
“We hope that lawmakers are planning to take action to extend the eviction moratorium and create a landlord compensation fund to ensure that COVID doesn’t bring a lifelong economic setback for Oregon working families,” Alison McIntosh of the Oregon Housing Alliance, sad in a statement.
Senate President Peter Courtney said the eviction issue has dominated discussions among lawmakers and is what drove the immediate need for a special session.
“That is the thing we were talking about way back in November — the concern that all of a sudden we are going to fall off a cliff at the end of December and everybody is going to be kicked out of their places,” said Courtney, a Democrat from Salem.
Whether or not the current proposal will pass, or if it will change, is still up for debate.
“You will see some concerns. We may or may not see amendments,” Courtney said. “I am convinced that we will pass something.”
Another topic, that has long been discussed, that restaurant and bar owners hope will reach the House and Senate floor is to-go cocktails.
Restaurateurs and bar owners say cocktails-to-go would provide the additional revenue stream to stay afloat.
More than 30 states have moved to allow to-go cocktails, but despite support from Oregon lawmakers, the issue never made it on the agenda in Salem.
However, Courtney said he foresees the proposal moving forward.
One topic noticeably missing from the special session is relief for people with unemployment benefits that are expiring soon.
Courtney said the reason proposals for further unemployment benefits not being included was because it simply “did not come up”, the focus was on evictions and because the session is a single day during a deadly and pandemic.
“I think the greatest fear was that we had to decide how much work you can do in a one-day special session given the dangerous situation we have found ourselves,” Courtney said
For weeks lawmakers and residents have been urging the governor to call for a special session, but some people thought that would occur virtually rather than in Salem.
The governor, Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek had all signaled support for the state’s first “catastrophic” legislative session, making it possible for the session to be remote.
While Kotek, D-Portland, said she would have “preferred to conduct business remotely” she believes the Legislature “must meet as soon as possible and as safely as possible to get critical support to Oregonians in need.”
Like previous special sessions this year, lawmakers will adopt special rules in an attempt to accelerate the process. They will also be required to follow COVID-19 related safety protocols, such as wearing a mask.
“This will be our third special session,” Courtney said, who is Oregon’s longest-serving legislator with 36 years as a lawmaker. “I never thought I would see that.”
Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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