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“There are existential questions with which humankind has wrestled for time immemorial. What exists beyond the edges of the universe? What, ultimately, is the meaning of life? Will the Oregon Legislature convene for a third special session to keep working on 2020’s disasters?

“I can’t answer any of them,” state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, wrote in his constituent newsletter last week.

Now we at least have the answer to this year’s third special session: 8 a.m., Monday, Dec. 21, in the Oregon Capitol.

Legislators, a few staff and journalists will be there. The public, including lobbyists, won’t. The Capitol remains closed to the public.

The Legislature’s newly appointed Joint Interim Committee on the Third Special Session of 2020 was to begin holding so-called informational hearings Thursday evening by phone and video, and continue them on Saturday.

The goal is to wrap up Monday’s session in one day.

“We will adopt special rules … to make sure we can move as quickly as possible,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told journalists this week in a press conference via Zoom.

“This will be our third special session. Never thought I’d see that. (But) here we are and we’re doing the best we can with this situation,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do between now and Monday.”

Courtney said there is bipartisan commitment to work together, as lawmakers put aside their Democrat-Republican and urban-rural differences for the past few weeks.

It’s noteworthy that only Courtney met with the press to take questions about the session. Gov. Kate Brown announced the session in a press release issued Tuesday morning, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, mentioned it her constituent newsletter that evening.

The Republican leaders, Sen. Fred Girod of Lyons and Rep. Christine Drazan of Canby, issued similar statements.

Drazan said: “A third special session will provide needed relief for Oregonians who have been impacted by COVID-19 and the governor’s executive orders. Proposed legislation prioritizes families and kids, restores jobs and takes our first steps to prevent frivolous lawsuits, while setting aside resources to balance our budget, fund wildfire recovery and support public health.

“This special session is an opportunity for us to come together to support Oregonians. Our work remains incomplete until we successfully provide access to COVID-19 vaccines to Oregonians who want it, get our students back in the classroom, provide critical liability protections for businesses and our essential health care system, rebuild communities impacted by wildfires and recover jobs."

Kotek and House Democrats had wanted a much more expansive agenda for the session than the four bills currently on the agenda. Brown, Courtney and Republican legislators wanted the smaller agenda, with bills that largely had bipartisan consensus.

Brown had been going back and forth on when to hold a special session and whether it would be at the Capitol or be conducted remotely.

“A lot of give and take was going on. It’s like a river. It’s changed its channels, changed where it goes, week by week,” Courtney said. “I think it’s because the pandemic is driving this thing.”

Brown and Kotek initially favored wanted a special session right before Thanksgiving. But then the number of COVID-19 cases shot up, including in Marion County, home to the Capitol.

Legislators, lawyers and the governor also got hung up on whether she would declare that the pandemic had created a catastrophic disaster, thereby allowing the Legislature to convene remotely. That constitutional provision, approved by voters in 2011, lowered the requirements for a quorum but raised the bar for passing bills.

The ballot measure had emerged from what arguably was one of Oregon’s most productive legislative sessions, because Democrats held a bare majority in the Senate and evenly shared power with Republicans in the House.

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, and then-Rep. Jean Cowan, D-Newport, were the driving forces behind the ballot measure. I would think they would be considered the experts on its various provisions. Instead, the provisions have been subject to intense legal dissection and internal political debate.

“The governor never was very comfortable with that. She really was nervous about setting precedent,” Courtney said. “I remember saying, ‘Would you please make a decision.’ … We needed to get serious.”

Short memory No. 1: After the last special session, legislative leaders were hammered for not holding public hearings during that day, only beforehand, when the proposed legislation was not in its final form.

From what Courtney said this week, the Legislature likely will stick with that approach again for Monday.

Short memory No. 2: Courtney said no one had been pushing the Legislature to provide relief for the roughly 70,000 Oregonians whose pandemic-related unemployment benefits expire Dec. 26.

“We didn’t discuss it. It just didn’t come up,” he said, echoing a stance from this past summer.

The catalyst for Monday’s session is preventing tenant evictions and aiding landlords who are not receiving rent payments.

On the federal level: Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, continues calling for federal action on unemployment and other coronavirus relief.

As of Thursday afternoon, Wyden’s staff said the situation remained fluid with negotiations continuing.

But talking with Oregon journalists last week, Wyden referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as “The Mitch who stole Christmas” for supposedly obstructing progress.

“Mitch McConnell and his Scrooge caucus are simply walking away from truly bipartisan efforts,” Wyden said last Friday, vowing to stay on Capitol Hill and work through Hannukah, Christmas and the Winter Solstice if necessary to pass coronavirus relief.

Who’s at the table: The legislators on the special session committee for Monday are Courtney and Kotek, co-chairs; Girod and Drazan, co-vice chairs; Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland; Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene; Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer: Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn; Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene; and Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass.

Missing is anyone from the coast or east of the Cascades.

From the coast: Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, who is one of the better writers in the Legislature, wrote this in his constituent newsletter: “The Holiday Season has arrived. Whatever you celebrate, please do so with love, joy, and gusto. Difficult times often bring out the best in people. Take time to remember all the gifts we have to be grateful for. Light candles, decorate trees, worship as you wish, and please remember to shop local.”

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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