Legislative budget writers start reviewing cuts, hearing from public

Oregon State Capitol.

With the Legislature holding a special session on Monday Dec. 21 and the daily reports of COVID-19 cases in Oregon dominating the headlines, here's a few items that may have been missed in the churn of the daily news cycle. 

Virus relativity

Gov. Kate Brown and state health officials have often mentioned how well Oregon is doing in fighting COVID-19 compared to other states. With a seven-day infection rate of just over 30 people per 100,000, Oregon ranks 48th among the 50 states as of Friday on the New York Times running count of state coronavirus statistics. Only Vermont and Hawaii have lower rates. Tennessee has the worst at 128 per 100,000. California's wave of cases has it ranked third — behind Rhode Island — with 98 per 100,000.

But Oregon is also doing very well in a country that is doing just about the worst in the world. The U.S. ranks 10th highest in current infection spread, at 64 per 100,000. That's only better than Lithuania, Serbia and some other eastern European counties, along with tiny nations like San Marino and Liechtenstein. If Oregon were an independent nation, its infection rate would be the 35th highest in the world. Better than the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden and Hungary. The state is in a virtual tie with Austria. But the list of places doing better is much longer than the ones doing worse than Oregon.

Infection rates are lower in Germany and Italy, two nations that have been on a crisis footing lately over COVID-19. Inaccurate reporting makes statistics questionable in some countries, but among others where levels are widely considered accurate are Spain, France, Canada and Ireland. Infection rates are below 3 per 100,000 in Japan, Iceland, and South Korea. Below .3 are Singapore and Mongolia. Below .1 are New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan — and China.  

No Biden for Brown 

While a few members of her staff have left Salem to join the future administration of President-elect Joseph Biden, Gov. Kate Brown will not be following — at least for now. Brown said there is no job that would cause her to leave Oregon in the midst of its current crises, said spokesman Charles Boyle. Stay tuned for 2022, when Brown will be termed-out as governor with few if any electoral options in Oregon.

More manpower — maybe

The two-year budgets that governors submit to the Legislature are usually heavily revised by lawmakers before being sent back to the governor for their signature. But they are the starting line for negotiations, mostly between various factions of the Democratic-dominated House and Senate.

Of note in Brown's proposed 2021-23 budget is a request for an increase of 1,309 new state worker positions — mostly to handle problem areas such as public health, housing and unemployment. The state in 2019 had a total of 39,744 FTEs (full-time equivalent, that includes some part-time staff). The Legislature approved 41,469 FTEs in the current budget. Brown would bring the total to 42,778.

The largest increases would be in the departments of employment, education, human services, administration, economic and community development and the judicial branch. Brown proposes offsetting some of the cost by reducing some positions in the departments of transportation, public safety, and consumer and business affairs. Most other departments would be maintained at or near current authorized levels.

Brown's budget is predicated on a lot of financial help from Congress. The $900 billion compromise package that has a chance to pass before the end of the year wouldn't do it. If the aid doesn't come through, Brown and lawmakers will have to refigure their numbers.

Liz Merah, Brown's press secretary, said the state was straining over a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

"With more than 150,000 Oregonians joining the Oregon Health Plan and hundreds of thousands depending on unemployment benefits, these frontline workers are delivering basic services that Oregonians are relying upon," Merah said.

Brown had ordered earlier staff cuts at the Oregon Lottery and State Parks departments, while consolidating or eliminating some agencies, moves Merah said saved $100 million. The budget will be introduced when the Legislature convenes for business on Jan. 19. 

Bipartisan union

Oregon's legislative staffers would be the first in the country to unionize under a proposal first reported by Willamette Week. About 110 staffers for House and Senate lawmakers of both parties would be covered if the drive to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89 is successful. Advocates of the move said unionizing would ensure better pay equity and strengthen protections on sexual and other types of harassment that have made news in the past few years.

When Oregon picked the president

Seven electors met last week at the state Capitol last week to case Oregon's 7 votes in the race for president. It was a sedate affair and Oregon's contribution a small splash in the total of 306 votes Biden received to become the next tenant of the White House.

It was a far cry from a time long ago when the fate of the nation was in the hands of three electoral college votes from Oregon. Whole books have been written about the machinations of the election in the year of the American centennial. But in a nutshell:

In 1876, the races between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was tight. Tilden squeaked out a close victory in the national popular vote, but Hayes was the narrow choice in Oregon. The Electoral College would decide the matter. When the tallies arrived, Tilden had 184 votes — one short of what was then needed to win the Electoral College.Disputes over Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina, would eventually be resolved in Hayes' favor.

Oregon was an oddball. Hayes won the three electoral votes and the electors sent a certification to Congress. But the Democratic governor, La Fayette Grover, disqualified one for having a federal job (postmaster) against the rules of the Electoral College. Grover named an elector who backed Tilden and sent the certification to Congress for two votes for Hayes and one for Tilden. There was that one vote Tilden needed.

Congress deadlocked over which slate to accept, the debate dragged into the next year, when Congress came up with the "Compromise of 1877." Democrats would cede the election to Hayes. In exchange, Republicans would withdraw the remaining Union Army troops in the former Confederate states. The move ushered in the era of Jim Crow as white southerners made if nearly impossible for Black people to vote until the 1960s.  

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