Oregon Capitol House

The House chamber in the state Capitol in Salem. 

The Oregon Legislature is preparing to meet as early as next month at the Capitol to deal with an estimated $3 billion gap in the state budget due to the financial fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The 60 House members and 30 senators, along with staff and support personnel, would be coming to Salem amid an ongoing public health crisis that has killed 134 people in Oregon and seriously sickened thousands more. The Capitol sits in the heart of Marion County, which currently has the highest per capita rate of positive cases in the state.

"Marion County is certainly a hot spot in the state," said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. Nevertheless, he will go to Salem.

"I will be at the Capitol when requested to represent my constituents," Knopp said. "We need to learn to live as safely as we can with the virus as it will be with us for some time."

With businesses closed and thousands unemployed, the actual hit on the state budget has been speculative. That speculation will end May 20 when the Office of Economic Analysis issues the Oregon Economic Forecast.

Gov. Kate Brown has already asked state departments and agencies to submit a plan to cut their budgets by up to 17%. Brown said last month in Portland that she expected to call a special session of the Legislature after the May 20 report to figure out how to pull the state out of its cash-flow crater. Unlike the federal government, Oregon has to have a balanced budget by constitutional mandate.

Oregon had 3,416 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday morning. Marion County has reported 746 cases and 23 deaths, second only to Multnomah County, which includes Portland.

The largest proportion of Marion County cases have been reported well north of the Capitol, in North Salem, Gervais and Woodburn. But the Capitol zip code — 97301 — has had 69 cases through May 12, about 12.4 per 10,000 people.

The unusually high rate led the Oregon Health Authority to send three of the 15 Abbott ID NOW test machines obtained recently from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to Marion County. The machines can report a positive test result within 15 minutes.

Though nearly every legislator will be coming to Marion County from places with lower infection rates, several from both parties agreed the need for action outweighed any perceived personal risk.

"Our obligation is to deal with the pending catastrophe of the state budget," said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.

Johnson said exposure of lawmakers and staff to the virus can be limited if there is an agreement ahead of time that business will be rapidly completed and the Legislature adjourned. That means getting Democrats and Republicans alike to promise to limit the session to only fixing the coronavirus and not bringing up other policy issues.

"I think we need to be absolutely unambiguous about what we are going to do and what we will NOT do," she said. "We should have a protocol ahead of time, agreed to by the governor, and the leadership of the Senate and House — majority and minority — and announce it to the public."

Asked if she would come to Salem herself, Johnson was clear.

"Absolutely," she said. "If you take precautions, you can be safe anywhere."

The logistics of a possible special session are being drawn up by the offices of the presiding officers, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

Bringing lawmakers back to the Capitol is currently the only option, said Danny Moran, Kotek's communications director.

"The House has to convene in person in the Capitol for a special session," Moran said.

Moran said meeting remotely could only occur if Brown called a special session under Article X-A of the Oregon Constitution, declaring a catastrophic disaster.

Capitol staff are working to draft possible procedural rule changes to allow the Legislature to function while meeting public safety guidelines, including physical distancing at all times.

"This could include providing more time for voting, restricting the number of members on the floor at one time, etc.," Moran said.

Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, said discussions include possibly amending rules so that the lawmaker's offices, adjacent to the House and Senate chambers would be temporarily included in the definition of "the floor" of the chamber.

The move would allow legislators to stay sequestered in their offices, but counted as present to establish the two-thirds quorum required in each chamber to convene. Lawmakers could then take turns going into the chambers in small groups to make statements, motions and vote.

"Maybe no more than 10 or so at any given time would be in the chamber," Zika said.

Zika said that he planned to go to Salem for the session, but that some older members he declined to name have expressed concerns about exposing themselves to the virus. Several senators and representatives fall into the "at-risk" category of those over 60 years old and/or having underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and other conditions.

"I think most of us are ready to go," Zika said. "There has been some concern expressed, but everybody will make their own choice whether to go. We don't need everyone. We just need a quorum."

Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, D-Astoria, one of the Legislature's younger members, said she will go.

"I am prepared to do my duty as elected representative for House District 32 and return to Salem, if and when that is asked of me," she said.

Mitchell said she wanted to make sure any vote to fix the budget cushioned health care and education in addition to helping local economies recover.

The Oregon Legislature has had 41 special sessions since 1860, which have ranged from one to 25 days. Special sessions can be called by the governor or by the Legislature itself.

Dates for a possible 2020 special session have floated around the Capitol, with June as the earliest possible time.

"Some want it soon, some want it later," Johnson said.

But despite the looming financial crisis, Johnson said that researching, analyzing and drafting bills is still required.

"There are a lot of the mechanics of the process that will take some time," she said.

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