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Capital Chatter: Special session politics

Despite the hopes of some, a special legislative session is not imminent after all.

A curious press release emerged from the Oregon Legislature after hours on March 27.

It lauded the work of the Legislature's special committee on coronavirus relief and quoted Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem: House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland; and House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby.

The press release stated, "Legislative leaders will work with Governor Kate Brown to determine the timing of a special session in order to pass the emergency relief package."

Absent was any comment from Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass. Instead, his office had distributed a press release minutes earlier, saying, "The Senate Republican caucus is ready to work with Governor Kate Brown to provide immediate relief to Oregonians during the COVID-19 event."

The differences between those statements foreshadowed what Brown finally acknowledged on Thursday: A special legislative session is not imminent after all.

Among the curiosities is that while others pushed for a special legislative session as soon as possible, the Oregon Senate Republicans aligned with Brown in believing that it might not be necessary, at least not right away. The state budget technically doesn't need to be balanced until the current two-year budget period closes on June 30, 2021.

By the way, remember that the Senate Republican Caucus and the Democratic governor have not been fast friends. But the GOP senators don't want supermajority Democrats using coronavirus as the guise to push through leftover policies from the 2019 and 2020 sessions. And for Brown, it may be much easier to direct state actions on her own rather than have 90 lawmakers peering over her shoulder.

Under the Oregon Constitution and state statutes, the governor already may have considerable latitude to shift money around to deal with the pandemic, along with a billion-dollar-plus influx of federal coronavirus funding. She also may have all the emergency authority needed without asking legislators to temporarily suspend or alter state policies.

So the special session that was expected last week, and then this week, will be held … whenever.

The statement issued by Brown's office Thursday afternoon quoted her as saying: "We want to make sure our scarce state dollars are focused on filling in gaps left by the federal stimulus package, not duplicating efforts. Once we have sufficient clarity about the federal stimulus, I will call a special session and ask lawmakers to take further action. In the meantime, my team is reviewing the policy changes recommended by the legislative committee to determine which are the most urgent and which can be accomplished through other means."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California Gov. Gavin Newsom have been having regular televised press conferences, with reporters asking questions by telephone so as to maintain social distancing. Gov. Brown has not. She also has switched strategies frequently.

Brown had started daily conference calls with reporters, but the most recent one was March 25. Another one was announced for Thursday but was canceled 34 minutes later. Instead, her officed issued its statement saying she was still thinking about a special session.

On Monday, Brown did participate in a video press conference via Zoom, during which reporters could ask questions of her, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, and union leaders and workers. She also has posted a few video messages.

Andrew Phelps, director of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, has held three media availabilities by webinar this week.

If a special session eventually is announced, here are several things to look for:

1. Follow the money. Do individuals or organizations seem to be rewarded for echoing the Democratic leadership's call for a special session? Lots of money could be handed out, and decisions must be made on who gets it. That's how politics works.

A precursor could be what actions are taken by the Legislative Emergency Board, which Speaker Kotek said should meet soon to allocate funding. "We can and should do more now to provide gap funding for essential needs like food and shelter while we wait for federal assistance," she said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

2. Again, to what extent do Democratic leaders use a special session to pursue policy goals left over from the aborted 2020 legislative session and the 2019 session.

Legislators on the bipartisan, bicameral coronavirus response committee generally agreed that alterations or suspensions of state policies approved during a special session should be of limited scope and duration. Those legislators, however, are not the ones controlling the agenda for a special session. Kotek and Courtney are, with whatever input they want from others.

3. What horse-trading happens?

Republicans and business groups continue to want modifications and delays in the new Corporate Activity Tax, and the economic hit from the coronavirus adds another rationale to their argument.

The Brown administration appears to have legal authority to delay the CAT, but doing so would infuriate many of her supporters. Political cover would helpful. Would legislators trade a CAT delay for, say, passage of a gun storage bill or some other Democratic goal?

4. Who calls the special session and how?

The Legislature can call itself into session, but the process can take three weeks. If at least one senator and one representative request a special session, ballots are sent to all 90 lawmakers. They have 14 days to vote. If a majority in each chamber support a special session, the presiding officers must schedule one to begin within five days.

Under the Oregon Constitution, the governor has two methods. She can issue a proclamation setting a date, time date and purpose for the session to convene. Of course, once the session starts, legislators can do whatever they want.

She also can call an emergency session under a proclamation of a catastrophic emergency, which eases quorum requirements and allows remote voting by lawmakers.

5. Does either party somehow use a special session to make it even harder for challengers to unseat legislative incumbents? Lots of rumors afloat.

Give him a call: State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, gave out his home phone number during a "tele-town hall" this week. Responding to a question, he encouraged constituents to call him at home if they couldn't reach his legislative office.

Knopp told the callers that he's had the same number for 35 years, and it's always been listed in the phonebook.

I always admired the late Dave Frohnmayer — legislator, state attorney general, Republican gubernatorial candidate and University of Oregon president — because he never took his number out of the Eugene phonebook.

Quote of the week: Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state health officer and epidemiologist, talking about people working from home: "Bring Your Son or Daughter to Work Day is now every day."

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.