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Oregon lawmakers address coronavirus relief in special session

Bills expected in the session will include a proposed eviction moratorium, a restaurant relief package and a bill to protect schools from COVID-related lawsuits.

PORTLAND, Ore — When Oregon lawmakers return to the Capitol building Monday they will consider four bills that many hope will ease some of the struggles ignited by the pandemic.

The bills, expected to be taken up during the one-day special legislative session, include a proposed eviction moratorium that includes $200 million in relief for landlords and tenants, a restaurant relief package that includes a provision legalizing cocktails to-go, a bill that would protect schools from some coronavirus-related lawsuits and a measure that would transfer $600 million in to the state’s emergency fund for COVID-19 and wildfire-response and recovery.

“The third special session will give needed relief to hurting Oregonians,” said Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, who is from Stayton.

With the federal and state eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of the year, the issue has been pushed to the forefront — dominating discussions among lawmakers and driving the immediate need for a special session.

“That is the thing we were talking about way back in November — the concern that all of a sudden we are going to fall off a cliff at the end of December and everybody is going to be kicked out of their places,” said Peter Courtney, the Senate president and a Democrat from Salem.

Democrats control the Legislature.

For weeks, housing advocates have implored lawmakers to extend the moratorium, estimating that between 20,000 and 40,000 Oregon households could be at risk for eviction.

The proposal extends the moratorium on residential evictions through June 2021. The bill would also require tenants to submit a sworn statement that they’ve experienced financial hardship in order to be protected from eviction.

Rep. Christine Drazan, leader of the House Republican caucus, said although she feels the proposed moratorium is “a bit lengthy” she also says she understands the need for an extension.

The main sticking point however is in the second part of the proposal — a $200 million package in which $50 million will be allocated for rental assistance to tenants for the months ahead and $150 million to small landlords for previously unpaid rent. In order for landlords to receive funds they must forgo 20% of past-due payments, which Drazan described as “dramatically unfair.”

“It’s not right to tell (landlords) that they have to pay to get support when the government is the one who asked them to share this responsibility and bear this burden to keep renters housed, which they have done that,” Drazan said.

Courtney said when it comes to the proposal there will be “some concerns, but I am convinced that we will pass something.”

Lawmakers will also discuss a restaurant relief bill that allows restaurant owners to sell to-go cocktails in sealed containers. There would be a limit of two cocktails per “substantial” food item and the provision would end 60 days after the governor declares an end to the pandemic emergency.

Restaurateurs and bar owners say cocktails-to-go would provide the additional revenue stream they need to stay afloat.

More than 30 states have moved to allow to-go cocktails, but despite support from Oregon lawmakers, the issue never made it to the floor.

The third bill, which many Republicans have showed support for, would provide limited liability from pandemic-related lawsuits for public schools and other educational institutions if they follow state COVID-19 guidelines.

“We support the governor’s efforts to reopen schools while balancing protections of public health,” said Jim Green, the Oregon School Boards Association executive director. “Two of the critical pieces to making that happen are providing funding and ensuring that schools have limited liability from COVID-related lawsuits.”

Based on data from the state’s education department earlier this month, around 9% of Oregon public school students have returned for in-person school or a hybrid schedule, a result largely of stringent metrics set by Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, for school reopening.

Oregon school leaders have been seeking liability protection since the beginning of summer.

According to the Oregon School Boards Association, schools cannot buy insurance to protect against potentially ruinous lawsuits if they bring students into their buildings and somebody gets sick. A bill would help shield them as long as they are following safety protocols, making it easier to resume in-person learning.

Lastly, lawmakers will consider allocating $600 million to the state’s emergency fund: $400 million for expenses related to the pandemic, $100 million for expenses related to the recent wildfires and $100 million for other purposes.

During the Legislature's second special session in August, $200 million was allocated to the emergency fund, but Senate President Courtney said only about $17 million remains.

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Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.