CRANE — A state lawmaker from Eastern Oregon will look to trim the powers of state government during an emergency when the Legislature meets for a short session next month.
A bill written by Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, would amend Oregon’s Constitution to spell out when governors can declare emergencies, what powers they can exercise and, more importantly, how long they can unilaterally keep them in place.
Oregon has been under a state of emergency since March 8, 2020, when Gov. Kate Brown declared her intention to take extraordinary measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Brown has extended the state of emergency several times since then.
Under Owens’ proposal, known as Legislative Concept No. 49 until it is assigned a bill number, the governor, when making a declaration of emergency, must specify each county where the emergency exists and list reasons why local jurisdictions should be under a state of emergency.
According to the proposed legislation, the declarations cannot exceed increments of 30 days. After 30 days, the decision to extend a state of emergency would go to a local governing body for a vote. County and city governing bodies could then create a hybrid of emergency restrictions if they choose to do so regarding such measures as masking, school closures and vaccine requirements, Owens explained in an interview.
Additionally, the legislative concept states that a governor may not retaliate against a county whose governing body has determined not to fully continue a declaration of emergency beyond the initial 30 days of the order. Owens said this includes threats to pull state funding, fines against local businesses and other types of state sanctions.
Under current Oregon law, the governor must review and reevaluate emergency orders every 60 days to determine whether those orders should be continued, modified or rescinded.
Local control emerged as a significant issue for Grant County residents in August after Gov. Kate Brown reversed course on her June 30 executive order handing over public health decisions to counties amid a resurgence of COVID-19.
While the swiftly spreading delta variant sent COVID case counts soaring, Brown issued a barrage of new executive orders mandating masks in K-12 schools, inside state buildings and, finally, in all public indoor spaces in the state. Those actions drew the ire of Grant County leaders.
Parents asked for the county court’s support in getting decision-making back to the districts and out of the hands of the state.
County Judge Scott Myers told parents that the county does not have the power to take back local control of its school districts from the state. However, the county signed a letter from the Eastern Oregon Counties Association asking for local control of school districts.
“Some people might be mistaken in thinking that the county has power beyond a voice,” Myers said. “We don’t have the power to make those things happen.”
In a Dec. 21 press release, Brown extended the COVID-19 state of emergency through June, saying scientists believed the state was just weeks away from a new wave of hospitalizations due to an anticipated surge of the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
Oregon Health and Science University lead data scientist Dr. Peter Graven predicted that the omicron variant could surpass the delta variant in the number of cases due to its extreme transmissibility.
Brown’s office said in the press release that the emergency declaration provides the necessary framework to access resources in response to the pandemic, which includes the deployment of medical providers to hospitals, flexibility around professional health licensing, and access to federal disaster relief funds.
“As Oregon prepares for what could be our worst surge in hospitalizations during this pandemic, I know that this is not the beginning of the new year any of us had hoped for,” Brown said.
Jim Moore, a professor of political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove, said Oregon’s Constitution defines the governor’s emergency powers and what types of “catastrophic disasters” can allow them to be used.
The Constitution puts acts of terrorism at the top of the list, along with earthquakes, floods and public health emergencies.
Moore said that the catastrophes spelled out within the Constitution are assumed to be relatively short-lived.
“The problem we have right now is that it’s going on long term,” Moore said. “And so Republicans have decided that is an abuse of emergency power.”
Indeed, Moore said, everyone has a partisan take on the debate.
“Republicans say, ‘We need to change it.’ Why? Because they don’t like what Kate Brown is doing. Democrats are saying, ‘No, we don’t need to change it’ because they do like what Kate Brown’s doing.”
Since the pandemic’s beginning, it’s become evident that the federal government has minimal power in this situation and that the ability to deal with the pandemic rests with the states, Moore said.
That limitation on federal power, he said, is by design as part of the U.S. Constitution. For instance, he said, Oregon was able to pass an assisted suicide law because states have the right and the frontline duty to deal with public health issues.
Almost from the pandemic’s beginning, the question of how to respond to the coronavirus has been a hot-button political issue.
That said, Owens’ proposed legislation is something of a departure from recently passed legislation in GOP strongholds. For instance, conservative legislators in more than half of U.S. states, spurred on by voters angry about lockdowns and mask mandates, have stripped local officials of the power to protect the public against infectious diseases.
Moore said that the conservative ethos has long been that more governing power should be local. However, legislation passed in red states like Florida runs counter to what has traditionally been the GOP ideology.
Thus, he said, this means one’s political ideology shapes one’s views on emergency powers.
For his part, Owens said his motives are not politically driven.
“Honestly, it’s not about partisanship,” Owens said. “I by no means think the governor should not have the ability to declare an emergency declaration for 30 days, maybe even longer,” Owens said. “That’s reasonable.”