Oregon lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Wednesday morning for their first special session since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, the legislature was expected to convene in special session to rebalance the budget in light of the historic decline in anticipated revenues. Instead, on June 16, Gov. Kate Brown called the legislature into special session to address police accountability measures and policy responses related to the pandemic.
Legislators sitting on the Joint Committee on the First Special Session of 2020 convened for hearings most days and evenings this week, discussing policy matters within the scope outlined by the governor. The policy topics considered during the special session can be generally characterized as time-sensitive or necessary during the pandemic. Among nearly two dozen bills ultimately enacted by the legislature are a change to a communications tax to finance broadband investments in rural and underserved communities, statutory corrections to the state’s new business tax, the codification of some of the governor’s executive orders into statute, and a variety of police accountability and use of force reforms.
In many ways, this limited-scope special session was a trial run for future meetings of the legislature. Typically, the legislature conducts its business in cramped hearing rooms and hallways, but working in that environment is simply impossible given the new order of social distancing. The legislature adapted its routine procedures to a combination of digital and in-person proceedings while only meeting in-person to take formal action on measures.
These adaptations will presumably be the “new norm” for the legislature for the foreseeable future. Lawmakers are expected to convene in special session again later this summer to balance the budget and, perhaps, consider other policy measures. Additionally, there appears to be a likelihood the pandemic will extend into next year’s regular session, and working through the fits and starts now should help make those sessions more seamless.
Notably, this special session was also a political trial run to test the ability of the parties to work together. Earlier this year, the legislature adjourned its regular session before enacting most of its bills into law after Republicans walked out of the Capitol over controversial climate legislation. Lawmakers have not had a chance to work together since that session collapsed, making this week a pivotal moment in building bridges between the parties.