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Capital Chatter: Into uncharted waters

Because of coronavirus precautions, the special sessions that will be called to deal with the outbreak could look far different from normal.

The Oregon Legislature likely will hold several special sessions to battle the health, economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

"The first special session will be a very dramatic special session, because we're going to have more," Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said.

"You have to do bold things," he said. "Every legislator today is at a moment in Oregon history that no other Legislature has ever been."

That first special session likely will come soon. Lawmakers said they will have to keep adjusting state budgets and policies as situations change.

"This is going to be a series of steps that are balanced and flexible," said Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas. "And it's going to be a long time, regardless of [whether] we get lucky and we don't see a huge spike" in the number of COVID-19 cases.

"What we do in the next 10 to 15 days may in fact change in 30 days as each step goes forward. It's going to be a series — not one grand plan — but a series of steps."

Because of coronavirus precautions, the special sessions could look far different from normal. Many legislators, including Courtney, are in the so-called "vulnerable" population due to age or medical conditions. The Oregon Capitol already is closed to the public, and 90 legislators plus staff and anyone else could amount to a contagion factory.

Courtney said he and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, are very aware of the need to maintain at least a six-foot social distances among people, and will include that in session planning. Courtney also will ask for volunteers among his staff who are willing to work instead of requiring their presence.

Conceivably, the legislative session could be held electronically for the first time.

Legislators are required to be physically on the House or Senate floor to vote on bills. However, at Boquist's behest, Oregon voters in 2012 amended the state constitution so the governor can convene the Legislature in the event of a "catastrophic disaster," including a public health emergency.

The constitutional amendment includes the provision that "a member of the Legislative Assembly who cannot be physically present at a session convened under section 1 of this Article shall be considered in attendance if the member is able to participate in the session through electronic or other means that enable the member to hear or read the proceedings as the proceedings are occurring and enable others to hear or read the member's votes or other contributions as the votes or other contributions are occurring."

When the amendment was proposed, the big fear was The Big One: A major earthquake could render the Oregon Capitol unusable and legislators unable to reach Salem.

But Boquist was prescient. Along with earthquakes and tsunamis, the amendment also covers catastrophic disasters from terrorism, flood, public health emergency, volcanic eruption and war

The Legislature's special coronavirus response committee met for the first time Wednesday and heard from Gov. Kate Brown's staff, business leaders and others. If lawmakers were expecting specifics of what Brown sought in proposed spending and policy changes, they didn't get it. The committee will meet again Friday afternoon, with members asked to bring their ideas for what should be done.

But Brown's chief of staff, Nik Blosser, said the financial needs will far outstrip the state's resources. Oregon already was looking at a hefty budget deficit for the next biennium, 2021-2023, and the state revenues already are plunging as business activity slows.

This week the Oregon Lottery turned off all the video lottery machines in compliance with Brown's orders on social distancing, including ban on people eating, drinking or hanging out inside restaurants and bars. Video poker makes up a large portion of the lottery proceeds that flow into the state's general fund.

Personal income tax collections will drop as thousands of employees across Oregon either are laid off or work fewer hours, especially in the visitor and tourism industries. Tourism taxes and business tax receipts will decline as well.

Interviewed later on Wednesday, Kotek said legislative leaders would reexamine and adjust the proposed budget bills that the 2020 Legislature had been expected to approve. "That seems so long ago," she said of the legislative session that abruptly ended two weeks ago.

Although the legislative committee is seeking bipartisan responses, the ideological differences showed during Wednesday's meeting. Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, took aim at President Donald Trump's federal tax reforms that allowed the rich to keep more of the money. She said Oregon should seek to have those reforms reversed.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby joined with business leaders in seeking regulatory relief and urging delay of new business tax to fund education improvements, the corporate activity tax.

With so much information already flowing locally and globally about the impacts of coronavirus, after the hearing I asked legislators what they had learned that they didn't know before.

"That's a tough question," said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, who co-chairs the committee with Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay. "I learned a lot across the board, just how extensive this is impacting different sectors. And each sector has a different take."

Some economic and social of Oregon will have easier times than others in complying with the newly imposed government restricts, which are aimed at slowing the virus' spread. Across-the board and sector-specific solutions will be needed.

"I was struck again by the amount of uncertainty that exists and how much we don't know how long it's going to last," Roblan said. "Business people showed me a lot more angst than I had seen for a long time — with regard to how they're going to react to this over time, and how they can prepare themselves so they can recover."

To him, the 4.5-hour committee meeting underscored the importance of hearing from the public: "There were a lot of things that I had not thought about that came out in the conversation today, but obviously, individuals in each of those places are thinking about a lot."

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 Twitter.com/DickHughes.