Oregon legislators Tina Kotek and Peter Courtney

Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives Tina Kotek (right), D-Portland and Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney (left), D-Salem, debate several bills on unemployment benefits in committee Monday, August 10.

(The Center Square) – In less than 24 hours, Oregon lawmakers passed nearly a dozen bills closing the state’s $1.2 billion annual budget hole and tweaking the state’s unemployment benefits.

Monday’s special session is the second this year since late June and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Balancing the state budget is required under the Oregon constitution.

Of Oregon's 90 state legislative members, 16 handled committee meetings on Monday, alternating between video conferences and in-person meetings while wearing masks and social distancing per the state's COVID-19 restrictions.

Among the biggest pieces of bipartisan legislation balancing the budget was a $362 million cut in general funding. 

Some Oregon lawmakers criticized the session's short timeframe and lack of live public comment. 

Unemployment benefits

Effective Sept. 1, Senate Bill 1701 raises the weekly earnings exemption to as much as $300 from $132.50, allowing workers to be paid benefits even while employed part time.

“I’ve spoken directly to Oregonians who’ve lost their unemployment because they earned too much money,” Oregon Bureau of Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle said in written testimony. “However, their earnings are not what anyone would describe as 'too much'; we’re talking $150 a week; that comes to $600 per month – this is not livable.”

Lawmakers also debated another proposal, Senate Bill 1702, which would have allowed teachers to apply for unemployment benefits during summer vacation and holiday breaks. The bill died in committee Monday after opposition from Republicans and Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.

Senate Bill 1703 enables the Oregon Department of Revenue to share Oregonian workers’ income tax returns with the Oregon Employment Department to process unemployment claims more quickly, aiding workers stuck in the adjudication process.

Alicia Temple, interim director of Legislative Advocacy at the Oregon Law Center, said all three bills stopped short of meeting the needs of struggling Oregonian workers still waiting on payouts.

“The system has not worked, and while the agency has made adjustments and tried to improve the processes during this unprecedented crisis, urgency remains to get people benefits,” Temple said in written testimony. “This is especially true for non-English speakers who were not provided the same options to apply as English speakers, and who are faced with sometimes insurmountable barriers to accessing this benefit.”

The Legislature's Joint Emergency Board passed a $35 million program in mid-July granting $500 checks to people still waiting on unemployment benefits. The Mail Tribune reported this week that a number of Oregon credit unions will help disperse the aid once details are more details are finalized.

Education

Easily passing the legislature, House Bill 4303 transfers roughly $400 million from Oregon’s Education Stability Fund to the state school fund effective March 1, 2021.

According to lawmakers, this transfer would make up for the state’s projected 23.7 percent decline in lottery revenue while leaving $9 billion for schools through the 2019-2021 budget cycle.

School districts must meet criteria laid out by Gov. Kate Brownto reopen classrooms this fall, such as seeing 5 percent positive COVID-19 test rates or less and 20 cases or fewer per 100,000 people in their counties for three weeks.

The vast majority of Oregon's 36 counties are trending well above this rate as of Tuesday, save for rural Wheeler County.

The state constitution requires 18 percent of lottery money to be paid into the Education Stability Fund and another 1.5 percent for the Veterans’ Services Fund.

The Oregon Veterans’ Services Program would see a $1.3 million cut in services, grants and supplies in the bill as well as funding for its Tribal Veteran Offices.

Police

Lawmakers also spent time to pass police reform on Monday in the form of House Bill 4301.

The bill, supported by a range of Oregon police groups, extends the state’s ban on chokeholds to corrections officers and adds stricter criteria for use, such as issuing verbal warnings and considering alternatives. 

While the bill passed easily with bipartisan support, Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, voted no, arguing lawmakers had already devoted enough time to police reform.

Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, said he will see to it that more police reform is passed going forward.

“Colleagues, this is not the last bill," Frederick said. "Let me be very clear about this."

The bill's passage on Monday comes as protests against police brutality continue in Portland.

Federal agents who withdrew from the streets last month reportedly remain on standby while city and state police patrol the city's largest protest zone at the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.