Oregon Capitol

The Oregon State Capitol building.

The second special session of the Oregon Legislature on Monday careened between boredom and anger, spiritual quotes and name calling as it dragged on from early morning into the night.

The lawmakers had come to the Capitol in Salem, surrounded by one of the counties with the highest levels of infections of COVID-19, to try to fix the $1.2 billion crater the pandemic created in the state budget.

What started out in the morning with invocation of public duty and spiritual fulfillment by nightfall had crossed into nasty exchanges.

A series of bills dealing with the budget, along with additional measures on unemployment claims and police reform, caused long delays during much of the day as members arrived at 8 a.m. for the quorum calls, then waited until 6 p.m. to finally vote on the legislation.

As soon as the Senate was called to order in the evening, Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyon, rose to respond to a press release put out earlier by Gov. Kate Brown. In it, Brown blamed Republicans for the defeat in the Joint Committee on Policies of a Senate bill that would have fast-tracked the review of unemployment applications for some public and private school employees.

“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," Brown said in her statement.

In the committee, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, had joined with Republicans to oppose the bill, killing it before it could go to the full Senate or House.

Girod pointed out that there were only two Republican votes on the issue, with Johnson providing the needed vote to shoot down the bill.

"Two Republicans," Girod said. "The number of Republicans equals the IQ of the governor."

The comment drew a swift rebuke from Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. But soon after Sen. Herman Baertschiger, R-Grants Pass, rose to blast the Democratic leaders of the Legislature for their choices on which budget areas to cut and which to maintain, before he switched to a condemnation of what he termed the rioting in Portland. That in turn set off Democrats, leaving Courtney to pound his gavel into the roar.

"Stop it. I will adjourn this meeting. Stop it," Courtney shouted.

The noisy name-calling and shouting was rare for the usually more sedate Senate, but underscored a simmering tension that had popped up throughout the day.

It started with the lawmakers coming to Salem in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, which has infected over 20,000 residents and killed 357 Oregonians as of Monday. Marion County, where the Capitol is located, has seen some of the highest infection rates in the state, though the hot spots were in areas farther away from the government buildings.

Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, reminded lawmakers that COVID-19 had spread farther and deeper into Oregon since the Legislature met in June to pass a series of policy bills.

"The viral load has increased, the infection rate has increased," she said.

Courtney reminded the lawmakers of some of the basic rules set during the first special session.

"One person in the bathroom, two in an elevator," Courtney said. "That way we all remain safe and get business done."

Legislative leaders in both parties had hoped for a relatively speedy session, but ended up with a quick march through quicksand. Lawmakers had to wait while the Employment Department worked to come up with delayed paperwork on bills to speed up unemployment benefits.

The department has been a frequent target of lawmakers' displeasure because of the breakdown of processing the more than 400,000 unemployment claims it received between March and August. The flood was due to the shutdown of businesses under the state's emergency measures to combat the pandemic's arrival in Oregon.

"It's interesting that we are waiting on the Employment Department," said Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend. "The irony is not lost on me."

Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner had said in the morning that the key to a safe session was not to gather together whenever possible.

"Limiting our time on the floor will limit our exposure to the virus," Wagner said.

For most lawmakers, that turned out to be no problem. As two committees made up of top leaders from both parties churned through the stack of fresh bills for almost five hours, the rest were left to cool their heels in their offices.

A common refrain was that the session in a closed-door Capitol with an agenda that came together just the day before wasn't proper.

"The public has been mostly shut out of the process," said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. "There’s a lack of access and transparency."

Some Democrats were also unhappy with the lack of transparency in making laws of the state.

"We strayed too far from representative democracy," said Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene. "Time after time, we see these funds distributed to Portland. Are my people somehow less needy?"

"I don't think this kind of precedent is positive," said House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Clackamas. "There are members in this building, and people across the state, who are scrambling to understand these bills."

Democratic leaders said they were doing the best job they could under trying health and political circumstances.

"We need to put our money where our mouth is," said House Speaker Pro Tempore Paul Holvey, D-Eugene.

Baertschiger, the Republican from Grants Pass who was once the Senate minority leader, said the tension was bound to happen with the state going from boom to bust with the crisis.

"We're not flush with money, and we're not going to be flush with money for a long time," he said.


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