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Capital Chatter: Special session talk

A big, big issue is the state budget. People are saying the revenue forecasts will show a $2 billion hole in the current two-year budget.

Remember the special legislative session that was going to tackle Oregon's COVID-19 crisis?

It's still not scheduled, although it could happen this month or next, but definitely after the state's quarterly revenue and economic forecast is released May 20. Meanwhile, House Speaker Tina Kotek has been jostling committee leadership and consolidating Democrats'

The continuing question: What will the legislative session cover?

A big, big issue is the state budget. People are saying the revenue forecasts will show a $2 billion hole in the current two-year budget.

That could help explain Gov. Kate Brown's mixed signals on the new, and controversial, corporate activity tax. First quarter payments were still due April 30 for businesses that expected to owe $10,000 or more during 2020. But Brown agreed to waive penalties for businesses that could not comply because of the impacts from COVID-19.

"While we appreciate this, many legislators believe it would be simpler to move the due date for the first quarter estimates back 60 days to allow small businesses a little more breathing room, an opportunity to improve their cash flow, and to reduce their anxiety of needing to meet a deadline that no longer has merit," Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, wrote in his newsletter to constituents last week.

And here's an intriguing sequence of events. On Tuesday, the House Democratic Caucus issued a press release praising the Department of Revenue for raising the threshold for requiring quarterly payments to $10,000 in expected taxes owed. The threshold had been $5,000.

House Democrats jumped the gun on the department, which did not announce that change until Wednesday, although the agency had filed the proposed rule change with the Secretary of State's Office on Monday. The rule proposal replaced one that had been in place all of 10 days.

The Senate Democrats, by the way, waited until after the official announcement to issue their press release lauding the change.

Changing who's in charge: Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, made significant changes in House committees.

She removed Rep. Greg Barreto, R-Cove, from the Joint Committee on Legislative Administration, and Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, from the Ways & Means Subcommittee on General Government. That means Democrats now outnumber Republicans, 3-2, on each subcommittee.

Almost all House committees are now proportional to the Democrats' supermajority in the House. The Veterans and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which has a history of bipartisanship under chair Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, retains an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. So does the House Conduct Committee.

I asked Danny Moran, Kotek's communications director, about the change in Legislative Administration.

Moran said the Legislature is behind in updating its personnel rules, "which has caused confusion and frustration for staffers and legislators in both parties and both chambers. The draft rules have been posted on OLIS for over six months. In fact, the Speaker scheduled an LAC hearing to discuss an alternate proposal that the House Republicans developed, but she was notified moments before the hearing began that House Republicans were beginning their walkout that day instead. The Speaker will continue to strive for consensus as we move forward, but further delay is unacceptable."

Kotek also replaced committee chairs who were retiring from the Legislature this year. Moran said she wanted to give other representatives more experience, and committee assignments will be reevaluated after the November general election.

Kotek split Human Services and Housing, which has had a huge workload, into separate committees,

The new committee chairs include: Behavioral Health, Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego; Business and Labor, Paul Holvey, D-Eugene; Education, Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn; Human Services, Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland; Housing, Julie Fahey, D-Eugene; Judiciary, Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley; Rules, Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland; Joint Ways & Means Public Safety Subcommittee, co-chair Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro; and Joint Transportation, co-chair Susan McClain, D-Forest Grove.

Kotek has bounced David Gomberg, D-Otis, from the Ways & Means Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development, replacing him with Mark Meek, D-Gladstone, as chair.

Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, has taken a leave of absence and does not have any committee assignments for the rest of the interim.

Willamette Week in March reported an allegation of domestic violence against Hernandez, although the restraining order has been dismissed. The newspaper subsequently reported that Hernandez wrote in a letter to colleagues that he was stepping back from legislative duties to "have time to reflect on the past, seek guidance and work on my physical and emotional health."

Evaluating state leadership: Gov. Brown already has shown she can do a lot without needing the acquiescence of a special legislative session. State agencies have suspended or altered dozens of administrative rules due to the pandemic.

Brown and her staff have been talking with a variety of interest groups and advisory panels.

Kotek has been receiving high-level briefings, according to her spokesman. However, House Republican Leader Christine Drazan of Canby and new Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Stayton scolded the governor this week for not including the Legislature in planning how to reopen the Oregon economy.

"Now is not the time for insider politics or playing favorites," they said in a joint press release. "Excluding the full legislative body from the draft guidelines to reopen the state is unacceptable."

Meanwhile, a recent survey indicated that Oregonians don't have a high level of trust in Brown, or in President Donald Trump either, as far as determining when to reopen businesses, schools and other businesses. Support for either one is highly partisan, which is not a surprise in light of Oregon's political divide.

The survey by DHM Research found Oregonians have greater trust in the federal Centers Disease Control and Prevention and in the Oregon Health Authority.

The online survey of 900 adult Oregonians was conducted April 17-21. Neither this one nor the previous survey asked respondents to rate the Oregon Legislature. Still, after the March survey I asked DHM's John Horvick if there was any indication of whether Oregonians favored having a special legislative session.

"The public pays almost no attention to the Legislature or to political processes," Horvick told me, adding that Oregonians want effective government action against the pandemic regardless of where it comes from.

After the April survey, I again asked Horvick what legislators might glean from the numbers. His takeaway was that anything the Legislature could do to increase COVID-19 testing would be good.

Ninety percent of Democrats and 81% of Democrats said the availability of widespread COVID-19 testing would be very or somewhat important in deciding when to return to normal activities. The numbers were similar when asked about the availability of effective treatments.

As of Friday, health facilities may gradually resume non-urgent procedures. Even some biopsies and other cancer surgeries reportedly were canceled because of the state's ban on non-emergency procedures that required use of personal protective equipment.

However, the DHM survey indicated, "The typical Oregonian expects that it will take another two months before it is safe to go to the doctor's office for routine care and three months to have surgery at a hospital."

In contrast, that typical Oregonian might take two months before feeling safe to get a haircut, three months to ride public transportation, four months to stay at a hotel, five months to travel by airplane and six months to attend a major sporting event.

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.