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Oregon Legislature to convene special session; Washington unlikely to do the same

On Friday afternoon, Oregon Governor Kate Brown is expected to call a special legislative session for Aug. 10, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting’s reporting.

In what will be the second special session of the summer, Oregon legislators will seek to address a $1.2 billion budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the special session is expected to center around the budget, OPB’s reporting also indicated that legislators could introduce bills related to police reform and COVID-19 business liability protections.

During the Legislature’s initial three-day special session in late June, 22 bills were passed on issues such as police reform, COVID-19 relief, and environmental policy.

This time around, the primary objective for legislators will be to close a $1.2 billion hole in the current budget, OPB reported.

Unlike their neighbors to the south, the Washington State Legislature is not expected to convene before the next general session in January.

While Washington State faces a $4.5 billion shortfall over the rest of the biennial budget, it has about about $3.5 billion in reserves that it can spend down to fill the gap for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Additionally, Gov. Inslee and state legislators are hoping the state will receive more federal dollars in an upcoming relief package, which could also be used to meet the shortfall.

The reason there isn’t a necessity for a special session is right now, we do have adequate resources for the state to fulfill its obligations up to January,” said Inslee in early July.

There is also concern about the viability of conducting a special session with social distancing measures in place.

We do our best work when we have big, inclusive stakeholder processes followed by public hearings with a lot of testimony; when we can talk to people both in big groups and little discussions in our offices, and then legislators get together and debate things for hours. All of these things are dangerous in this context. You can replace some parts of that with remote technology, but it will compromise our ability to do the work I just mentioned,” said Democratic State Senator, Jamie Pedersen. 

Proponents of a special session say that the longer the state waits to address the budget shortfall, the more severe budget cuts will have to be.

The longer the Legislature waits to address the shortfall, the harder it will be…Assuming no resource changes and that the Legislature uses the funds in the budget stabilization account (BSA, or the rainy day fund), appropriations would have to be cut by $809 million to get the FY 2021 ending fund balance up to zero. (This would not be enough to balance the budget over four years.),” wrote the Washington Research Council in a recent policy brief.

Other have suggested that tamping down on current spending while making use of reserves in the budget stabilization account could work in tandem to eliminate the need for a special session.

In April, Gov. Inslee issued vetoes that will reduce state spending by about $445 million from the general fund over the next three years. Broken down, $235 million in spending was reduced from the current budget and $210 million in the next biennium.

While the state could burn through its reserves in early February, 2021, the general session will have already begun on that point. When the Legislature returns in January, legislators can pass a supplemental budget to get through July when the fiscal year ends, proponents of this approach say.

Gov. Inslee and legislative Democrats have not ruled out a special session entirely, though.

Sen. Pedersen told the Wire that if the state experiences a cash crunch so severe that the Governor would request the authority to release more money from the budget stabilization account, he’s confident the Legislature would return before January.

Additionally, Pedersen said there may some benefit to having a legislative appropriation of a portion of the federal dollars that the state receives.

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