If this week’s legislative session were a murder-mystery game, it might be called “The Case of the Oregon Capitol: Who Killed Statesmanship?”
The list of suspects runs long, as Monday’s session began at 8 a.m. and concluded after 11 p.m.
There is Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. Shortly after 5:30 p.m. Monday, she took the unusual step of issuing a press release blasting two Republican senators for killing an unemployment bill in committee. Oh, Brown did not mention that one of the three senators defeating the bill was an independent-minded Democrat, Betsy Johnson of Scappoose.
There is Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Stayton, who responded to Brown’s press release with these words on the Senate floor: “Obviously, there’s two Republicans out of five on the committee. So my conclusion is that the number of Republicans equal the IQ of the governor.”
There is Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who said he got in trouble with the governor for his angry phone conversation with her about her press release: “It did not go well.”
There is Brown again, who doubled down on her contentious press release the next day, telling reporters she did not regret her words: “Absolutely not.”
And Courtney again, who said in his post-session video conference with reporters that he should have questioned the wisdom of taking up the three unvetted bills on unemployment benefits. “I’m still scratching my head where those bills came from,” he said.
There is House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, who pushed the unemployment bills, which surfaced late last week.
There are the side players: House Democrats wanted the unemployment bill so badly that they were ready to dramatically force its resurrection. … Democratic Rep. Marty Wilde of Eugene and many Republicans lamented the absence of public involvement and the rushed timing. … Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, and other Republicans remained angry that Democrats were not denouncing the protest violence in Portland. … Republicans and some Democratic legislators outside the Portland area contended that Brown and Democratic leaders have not given other cities and counties their rightful share of coronavirus funding. … By the end, Senate Republicans were so frustrated that Girod was hesitant to guarantee they would return for another special session if one is called for September.
The scene: The Oregon Capitol is among government buildings closed to the public because of the pandemic. Except for whatever written remarks people sent in, there was no public testimony Monday on bills. The budget fixes, supposedly the prime need for the special session, created only minor controversy. The police accountability legislation drew passionate debate but passed overwhelmingly.
It was one of three bills on unemployment bills that nearly caused the session to fall apart.
The background: David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Unemployment Department, said in July that he knew of no legislative fixes for overcoming the huge backlog in unresolved claims for benefits. Yet last week, three Senate bills quietly emerged for the special session, apparently arising from the governor’s office and the department.
No public hearings were, but two bills passed handily. The third, SB 1702, would have done away with the review faced by some public and private education employees, who have to prove their furloughs meet the test obtaining benefits. About 75% of those claims turn out to be valid, Gerstenfeld said.
If the bill became law, Employment adjudicators handling those reviews would be freed from that work and instead could be assigned to resolving other people’s claims. On the other hand, the education employees’ invalid claims would not be caught, so people could wrongly receive benefits. Although that typically amounts to 25% of claims, Gerstenfeld said he expected that percentage of invalid claims would be much lower due to the pandemic.
Democrats – most of them, at least – said the change would have speeded up the claims processing for everyone. “Their getting served quicker will help everyone stuck in adjudication hell right now,” Kotek said, later adding that she couldn’t understand why anyone would oppose such a common-sense solution.
The change in law would have applied to full- and part-time employees at public or private schools and colleges but who are not teachers, administrators or researchers.
Opponents said it would give an unfair advantage to public employees. Johnson asked how she could justify that to a tattoo artist or a bartender in Astoria.
“It sets a terrible precedent that public employees get in front of private employees,” said Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. Findley, who joined Johnson and Girod in killing the bill, said he had constituents who had been waiting up to six months for benefits.
All this unfolded against the backdrop of an election year. Democrats want to expand their supermajorities in the Senate and House. Republicans want to regain legislative seats. Brown is not up for election, but she is facing another recall attempt.
Oregon’s school employee labor unions primarily support Democrats. Those unions include members who could have benefitted from SB 1702.