Special Session Starts With Budget Shortfall Taking A Backseat 

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Oregon lawmakers kicked off the special session on Wednesday, setting the stage to zip through a flurry of bills about police reforms and the state’s response to the pandemic.

The state budget shortfall is not on the list. The state is staring down a $2.7 billion revenue shortfall for the upcoming year after soaring unemployment from the pandemic closed the doors of restaurants, retail stores and barber shops for months. 

Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders are holding out hope that the federal government will send relief to states that would help fill budget cuts in critical areas like Medicaid, behavioral health and Oregon State Hospital. 

Lawmakers expect another special session to balance the budget next month. 

“We certainly want to get back to the other issue of rebalancing the state budget,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told reporters Wednesday. “We expect to be back in session --  I would expect before the end of July -- to work on those issues.”

As a starting point, Brown ordered state agencies to draw up scenarios that show what 17% budget cuts would look like. At the Oregon Health Authority, a 17% cut would take more than $370 million out of the agency. The authority’s proposal would trim 173 beds from Oregon State Hospital, which serves people with mental health needs. Medicaid, a $6 billion-a-year program, would lose $64 million, or $233 million when factoring in matching federal money. 

It’s uncertain whether those cuts will materialize or how much the state will lean on reserve accounts to stay whole. 

This is  the first session to unfold during a pandemic. The capitol building is closed off to the public, except for the media, legislative staff and, of course, lawmakers.  Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, spoke to reporters  via a video-conferencing call. 

On the agenda, lawmakers plan to focus on police reform measures sparked by the death of George Floyd, including a proposed ban on chokeholds and teargas and more transparent police disciplinary records. Lawmakers also will take up COVID-19-related measures intended to stem the economic freefall. One bill has protections so tenants struggling to pay rent can avoid eviction and homeowners behind on their mortgage payments can avoid default. That proposal does not forgive the rent or debt, but it would give them more time to catch up. 

“We need to keep people housed and do the best we can to keep people stable during this pandemic,” Kotek said. 

The pandemic has sparked concerns about the rights of people with disabilities when they enter a hospital. Senate Bill 1606 adds more protections for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in hospitals. The bill prohibits hospitals from basing a patient’s admission or treatment on whether they have a physician’s order of life-sustaining treatment or other advanced directive. 

The bill allows a support person for a disabled person to be in the hospital with them. It  also requires the provider to notify the case worker or an advocacy organization if a person acting on the patient’s behalf wants to end life-sustaining treatment. The providers are required to provide notification before stopping any treatment. 

Courtney said disabled people are “really struggling when they get into hospitalization.”

Community Providers of Oregon and Oregon Resource Association support the bill. In a joint letter to lawmakers, the two advocacy groups said they have seen an increase in medical providers pressuring families and guardians of people with disabilities to change end-of-life plans to “do not resuscitate” or “do not intubate,” citing a lack of “quality of life.”

“This is absolutely unacceptable, and blatantly discriminatory,” the letter said. “And yet, it persists, and it grows.”

The bill faces its first committee hearing Thursday. 

Courtney said the special session is vastly different from others, as lawmakers face the twin threats of COVID-19 and discrimination. That forced lawmakers to quickly move proposals forward -- maybe even too quickly for Courtney’s liking.

“To be frank with you, some of these bills have not been vetted the way they should be and there is an uneasiness about that,” Courtney said. “But when you’re in this kind of crisis, you’ve got to move. You’ve got to move, and you hope you do the best you can.” 

This special session will last at least until the end of this week and possibly into the weekend. 

Lawmakers struggled to work together in the last session. The regular session ended on March 5 after a Republican-led walkout to kill a greenhouse gas emissions bill prevented both chambers from reaching a quorum necessary to conduct business. 

That bill is not on the table this session. 

This time around, lawmakers face a season of challenges that go beyond typical policy debates. 

“This is our time,” Courtney said. “Will we measure up to it? I do not know. This is beyond historic.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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