Oregon Legislative Recap and Look Ahead for 2021

By Rocky Dallum

The past year brought plenty of surprises with the pandemic, civil unrest, and wildfires all leaving a stamp on public policy in Oregon. Throughout 2020, lobbyists and lawyers alike worked hard to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of executive orders, special sessions, and temporary rules. 2021 is sure to be just as dynamic.

It may be cliché, but unprecedented really is the best way to describe each meeting of the Oregon legislature in 2020. In February, the regular legislative session melted down over carbon emissions policy when Republicans left the state to deny the 2/3 quorum needed to conduct legislative business and Democrats refused to negotiate over their return. This left several business issues unresolved, including tweaks to the new “Corporate Activities Tax”, a historic agreement on pesticides between environmentalists and Oregon’s timber industry, and a $600 million budget surplus for the state. Little did legislators (or the rest of us know) they’d be back in the Capitol several more times throughout the year with new challenges and less clarity on the health of state coffers.

The pandemic, social unrest over racial equity, and wildfires all gave policy-makers reason to reconvene. In June, they met for their first special session to adopt new police accountability laws, pass several bills left over from the regular session, and respond to the pandemic with a range of policies including housing assistance, mobile notaries, extensions on court deadlines, and restrictions on eviction and foreclosure. The second special session in August was primarily to rebalance the state’s budget in light of a projected $2.7 billion shortfall. Lawmakers also passed a few fixes to address the year’s unemployment insurance debacle.

The fall brought more surprises. Oregon state revenue swung wildly, as the September economic forecast showed a stabilizing economy while legislative leadership negotiated over whether to convene a third time to address more pandemic challenges and respond to the devastating wildfires. The Governor and legislative leaders explored invoking the untested Article X-A of the state constitution by calling a special session in response to a “catastrophic disaster,” thereby allowing virtual votes and reduced procedural barriers. The final special session of the year took place in “ordinary” course with a quorum of legislators returning to extend the eviction moratorium, provide $150 million in support to renters and landlords, and allow for “cocktails on the go.”

Unforgettably, 2020 also brought an election. Candidates campaigned in a challenging media cycle with campaigns greatly modified as a result of public health restrictions. While most eyes fixed on the presidential election, Oregon’s state results largely mirrored national trends, with mixed success for each party. Democrats won all the statewide races and all but one Congressional seat while Republicans, for the first time in a decade (and perhaps surprising to some political observers) netted one additional seat in the legislature.

The 2021 Legislative Session is scheduled (by statute) to convene on January 19, with the state budget, evolving pandemic response, and redistricting all on the docket. Before taking up substance, the legislature will have to figure out how to manage a process that meets public health guidance, allows for public participation, provides transparency, and complies with state constitutional requirements for in-person voting. Most political operatives believe the session will commence in person, move to a committee process virtually for the first several weeks or months, then transition back to live votes on the House and Senate floor as needed and possible. Once the legislature leaps these procedural hurdles, they will need to pass a budget for the next biennium and set new political boundaries in response to the 2020 census. Oregon’s Constitution requires the legislature to adjourn after 160 calendar days.

2021 will certainly keep employers, attorneys, and lobbyists busy. Legislators are already considering a range of employment law issues, debating liability shields stemming from COVID-19 claims, and looking at workers’ compensation eligibility related to positive cases. Perennial business issues likely to emerge in 2021 include connection to the federal tax code, producer responsibility and stewardship for variety of consumer products, the definition of independent contractors, and additional regulation of air and water quality, either through statutory changes or rulemaking. In addition, many attorneys in the state have scrambled over the past months to analyze new OSHA infectious disease rules and advise clients on compliance. You can track the session, new bills, and committee hearings at the Oregon State Legislature website.

It’s sure to be a dynamic year, but one that hopefully brings more clarity to our families, our schools, and our practices.

Rocky Dallum is a partner in Tonkon Torp’s Government Relations & Public Policy Practice Group. His practice includes strategic counsel and direct advocacy for corporate and nonprofit clients engaging Oregon’s legislative and executive branches. Rocky is particularly active in the areas of tax policy, life sciences, and natural resources.

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