The 2020 Oregon legislative session may have ended this month in a partisan showdown—but state legislators are working together now on solutions for Oregonians struggling with the fallout of closures from the coronavirus.
Some members of the Oregon Legislature are meeting virtually as the Special Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response. The purpose of the committee is to quickly make recommendations for legislative action to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
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- Twelve members of the Oregon State Legislature are meeting online to ramp up the State's efforts toward slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
The committee will work to:
Provide short-term economic relief to low-income workers and small businesses. This could include paid sick leave supported financially by the State.
Protect Oregonians from evictions and foreclosures
Evaluate and monitor statewide public health strategies for responding to COVID-19 and make necessary changes to empower the State to respond effectively
Recommend expedited budget and policy changes to the Oregon Legislature
Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend) is Central Oregon's only representative on the 12-member committee.
"There's a lot of questions about what is happening," Knopp told the Source. "The legislative branch holds the executive branch accountable for decisions that they are ultimately making right now. There is a lot of work to be done. We'll explore what could make it easier for the agencies to be able to act in the crisis. Some agencies might not have all the tools that they need."
Knopp has been on daily calls with the Oregon Health Authority and staff from other agencies working on coronavirus. Knopp was chosen for the committee because he is a member of the Senate Interim Committee on Health Care, and because of his experience working with small businesses.
"I have a business background so I can provide significant input on what businesses are going through; what decisions need to be made in terms of their staff," Knopp said.
Knopp says he's committed to making sure people continue to earn a paycheck throughout the crisis.
"Many of these families just can't stop getting money for a few weeks," he said.
Will legislators set aside their partisan differences and work together for now?
"I believe this will bring people together," Knopp said. "Obviously the coronavirus is not going to discriminate based on area... This shouldn't be a partisan issue."
Rep. Cheri Helt has called for the passage of a $1.6 billion tax relief program for Oregonians to help cushion the economic blows of what may turn into a global recession. Helt wants the State to issue tax refunds in the form of checks sent out by Memorial Day. Oregon has a unique tax rebate system written into the Oregon Constitution called the "kicker" which is triggered when tax revenues for a two-year budget cycle come in higher than 2% above what state economists forecast at the beginning of the cycle. The State must return the full excess amount to taxpayers. Gov. Kate Brown has floated some proposals to divert some of the money to a "rainy day" fund, or to address the $27 billion shortfall in the State's public pension fund.
Usually, taxpayers would receive refunds from 2018 as a credit on their 2019 state personal income tax returns filed in 2020. Helt said that the money will do greater good in the hands of families than it will "stashed away in a Salem vault." The size of each person's kicker depends on what they paid in taxes and the wealthiest Oregonians benefit the most. (Those who earn $30,000-$50,000 a year would receive approximately $375, according to the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis). The last kicker payout was right before the Great Recession.
Helt has contacted Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic and Republic leaders to come together for a 24-hour special session by the end of March to pass her tax relief package and finish the work of the February short session, which was cut short by Republican walkouts over the cap and trade bill.
"We have two missions right now, to protect people from the spread of this disease, and to help working families," Helt told the Source. "This is unprecedented, and it calls for unprecedented responses. I'm talking about rental assistance, mortgage assistance, and food assistance."
Helt is working with Carolyn Eagan, economic development director for the City of Bend, to discuss ways to get assistance funds in the hands of people who live here as soon as possible. The State does offer unemployment insurance for people with an employer, but the site received so much traffic on Monday that it crashed.
Meanwhile, Brown has her attention focused primarily on medical responses and preparedness to the coronavirus. Brown announced Monday that she is convening a coronavirus economic recovery council to address the economic fallout from mass closures throughout the state.