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Blink and you may have missed it: It took less than 72 hours for the Oregon Legislature to begin and end its special legislative session last week.
The whirlwind session was initially planned to address the immediate economic fallout from COVID-19. That focus was expanded, however, after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers sparked statewide protests to improve policy accountability. On June 11, the legislature’s People of Color (POC) caucus asked Gov. Kate Brown to call a special session to address six police reform policies. Five days later, Brown announced plans for a June 24 special session that would jointly address COVID-19 and law enforcement reforms.
Compared to Oregon’s recent legislative sessions, June’s 72-hour, semi-virtual special session was deemed a success for lawmakers’ ability to swiftly pass significant bills with bipartisan support.
At the same time, the pace of the conversations showed an imbalance within the lawmaking process. While lawmakers had months to cobble together COVID-19 relief legislation (the idea of a special session was first pitched in April), they were given two weeks to develop concrete police reforms informed by communities of color. And, with only three days to propose and pass new bills, the process lacked any meaningful public input and fine-tuning expected in a normal legislative cycle.
To Bobbin Singh, director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), the fast-tracking of police reform bills was both a moment of progress and a sign that the “tools of white supremacy” are still at play in Oregon.
“We can’t say, as a state, that we stand against racism and then sustain the same dynamics by not giving the POC caucus or the racial justice community a fair opportunity to be engaged,” said Singh. “It was too on-the-nose in some ways. On the other hand, it was incredibly important to accomplish as much as POC lawmakers did.”
For Oregonians demanding legislative action—in response to both biased policing and COVID-19 constraints—the special session seemed to set the stage for more expansive conversations around the state budget, the looming housing crisis tied to COVID-19 unemployment rates, an opaque law enforcement oversight system, and even several issues unrelated to the session’s two dominating topics.
Those conversations could come quickly, with both a general election and the possibility of two additional special sessions taking place before the end of 2020 (and don’t forget about the state’s regular legislative session scheduled for January 2021).
To keep tabs on where these issues stand now, here’s summary of the notable bills passed by Oregon lawmakers in 2020’s first special legislative session.
Police Reform Bills
Senate Bill 1604: Limits an arbitrator’s ability to overturn police discipline.
This bill is meant to make it easier for cities to fire or discipline police officers who commit misconduct. The legislation requires that an arbitrator hired to review police discipline appeals—made by police unions—make their determination based on a police department’s discipline guide. Due to the wonky wording of this legislation, however, both police reform advocates and police unions see flaws in the final law.
Candace Avalos, who serves as the chair of Portland’s Citizen Review Committee (CRC), told lawmakers during a hearing last week that SB 1604, “gives the impression that we’re fixing that system but in reality the bill as drafted does not resolve the issue.”
Sen. Lew Frederick, the bill’s author, agrees that the state’s laws around arbitration could go further, but that SB 1604 is the “beginning of a conversation” that will take place as the state continues to review its police accountability systems.
House Bill 4208: Allows use of tear gas after police declare a riot.
This bill codifies the use of tear gas by police in state law.
When initially introduced by the POC caucus, this legislation proposed prohibiting law enforcement from ever using tear gas on members of the public. But interventions by law enforcement lobbyists and conservative state lawmakers turned this bill on its head. Now, Oregon has a statewide rule allowing police officers to use tear gas on its citizens.
The law does limit the use of tear gas in certain circumstances. According to the legislation, tear gas can only be used on a crowd of people after police declare a riot is occurring under Oregon law and after officers give people enough time to disperse. Portland saw this new law in action on Tuesday evening, when a group of people protesting police brutality were met by a line of armored police on N Lombard. After several protesters threw water bottles and rocks at police, officers declared a riot and gave demonstrators a few minutes to scatter before shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd.
This legislation follows a lawsuit filed by Portland nonprofit Don’t Shoot PDX against the City of Portland for its indiscriminate use of tear gas and other munitions against members of the public.
House Bill 4201: Creates a Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform
This bill was originally drafted to require all police shooting investigations be carried out by the state Attorney General’s office instead of a local law enforcement agency. Yet staff representing Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum raised concerns that the office lacked the capacity to take on hundreds of new investigations spread across the state, prompting lawmakers to pump the brakes.
HB 4201 instead tasks a committee of lawmakers with investigating police use-of-force policies and police transparency problems over the next several months, and proposing reforms by the end of 2020. It’s the one bill that guarantees a conversation on police reform that goes beyond the special session. The group will begin holding meetings next week.
Singh, with the OJRC, said he’s eager to see what comes from the committee, which includes members of the POC caucus.
“It’s so important for members of the POC caucus to be at the table when these types of decisions are being made,” said Singh. “This is the beginning of the wave that’s beginning to crash. You have decades upon decades of the legislature placating and denying the experiences of people of color in Oregon. Now they have the floor.”
House Bill 4203: Bans police use of chokeholds except when deadly force is warranted.
This bill standardizes chokehold policies for law enforcement agencies across Oregon. While this rule is already in place for the Portland Police Bureau, it’s likely that smaller agencies have looser guidelines against the practice that led to George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police. The legislation also directs the state’s central training agency for all law enforcement officers to include this rule in its training.
There are a few loopholes in the bill’s phrasing that could protect officers who do use chokeholds, however. For instance, the legislation prohibits the state’s law enforcement training agency to prohibit training officers on using chokeholds, “except as defensive maneuver.” Meaning that, if an officer can prove that a fatal chokehold was used to protect themselves, they won’t be violating the law. Self-defense is a frequent argument successfully used by police officers who kill members of the public to protect them from litigation or discipline (in fact, one of the officers charged in Floyd’s death is expected to lean on this argument).
House Bill 4205: Requires officers to report a fellow officer engaged in misconduct.
This legislation is meant to weed out so-called “bad apple” cops by requiring officers who witness another officer engaged in misconduct to report it to their supervisor within 72 hours. The bill defines misconduct as excessive use of force that is “objectively unreasonable under the circumstances,” sexual misconduct, discrimination, and any other crime.
The bill does not specify what a supervisor should do with this information. Several civil rights organizations who offered testimony on this bill argued that it avoided the main problem: That officers who do commit misconduct are not being held accountable for their actions.
“Unfortunately, this policy attempts to provide a solution without addressing the core problem,” reads a letter sent to lawmakers by a coalition of Portland racial justice organizations, including Unite Oregon and the Urban League of Portland. “The legislature must also develop policy to address the following underlying problems: When misconduct occurs, proper discipline does not always happen; and 2) this state needs policy that adopts stricter standards around when use of force is appropriate or prohibited.”
House Bill 4207: Creates a public records database on police discipline.
This bill requires the state to create a public database of all suspensions and other disciplinary actions taken against police officers in Oregon. It also calls for law enforcement agencies to search the database for information on officers before offering them a job. This database does not include discipline records that an officer may have stacked up while working in an out-of-state law enforcement agency.
Testimony by the ACLU of Oregon points out that often, officers who’re facing a disciplinary investigation will voluntarily quit before the investigation finds them guilty of misconduct.
“Clarity is needed to ensure that an investigation will take place whether or not a police officer resigns in the face of an investigation,” writes ACLU interim legal director Kelly Simon. “If this is not addressed, police officers will be able to resign to avoid an investigation and being entered into the database, only to be rehired by another agency.”
This clarity wasn’t included in the bill’s final draft.
COVID-19 Relief Bills
House Bill 4213: Extends state moratorium on residential and commercial evictions.
Gov. Brown passed an executive order in April pausing residential and commercial evictions, after the impact of COVID-19 closures obliterated Oregonians’ incomes and business revenues. That order, however, was set to expire on June 30, and didn’t offer tenants any grace period for repaying deferred rents. HB 4213 both extends the moratorium to September 30, 2020 and gives renters until March 31, 2021 to pay back outstanding rent payments. As with the original moratoriums, this legislation prohibits landlords from sticking tenants with late fees and it doesn’t require proof that COVID-19 has made it impossible to pay rent.
Katrina Holland, director of housing access nonprofit JOIN, told the Mercury that the passage of this bill was critically important. But she’s prepared to have some “frank discussions” with lawmakers about a longer-term plan to support tenants whose income and savings have been erased by the coronavirus.
“If the legislature didn’t do anything, the rates of homelessness would have skyrocketed beyond our wildest imagination,” Holland said. “I think elected officials will need to prepare some bold and new plans. The stage has been set for us by the pandemic. We have no choice. We can’t ignore the pending doom that comes out of it.”
Lauren Everett, a spokesperson for Portland Tenants United (PTU), agreed that the bill is only part of a much bigger response tenants want to see from their state government. PTU is calling on lawmakers to place a freeze on all rent increases (as some Portland tenants have seen their rents climb by over $100 in the past months) and to use federal CARES Act funding to fully waive rent payments during the pandemic.
“While the eviction moratorium extension and repayment grace period is more generous than what we’re seeing in many other states, there is still a long way to go toward stability for Oregonians who rent their homes,” Everett told the Mercury.
Business owners who rent are also calling for further support than what HB 4213 offers.
Carmen Castro, the director of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber (HMC), an organization for Hispanic-owned businesses in the Pacific Northwest, told the Mercury that the bill offers a welcome respite to HMC’s members. But it’s not enough.
“[Business owners’] rental obligations are momentarily paused, not forgiven and will come due regardless,” Castro wrote in an email. “Unless grant monies are available to help with these bills, many businesses will be forced to close. It is unlikely their future revenue will be enough to cover what is currently accrued in addition to any future fixed costs.”
Commercial real estate businesses, however, are less thrilled about the eviction extension. In a letter to the legislature before the session began, the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) spoke for its real estate members in asking lawmakers to only extend the moratorium to tenants who can verify that they are unable to pay rent due to the pandemic. That request wasn’t included in the final law.
House Bill 4204: Temporarily protects homeowners from foreclosure.
This bill offers support to businesses and individuals (including landlords) who own property who may be unable to pay their mortgages due to COVID-19 financial constraints. Like with the eviction moratorium bill, HB 4204 prevents lenders from initiating foreclosures against homeowners and other property owners until September 30, 2020.
Yet, like with the eviction bill, this might only push the issue further up the economic food chain. HB 4204 received critique from credit unions who rely on mortgage payments. In testimony sent to legislators last week, the Northwest Credit Union Association asked the bill to only cover borrowers who can prove that COVID-19 is the reason why they’ve skipped a mortgage payment. As a result, HB 4204 includes a line requiring owners whose property has more than four dwelling units to show that “failure to pay is a result of a loss of income related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Senate Bill 1606: Protects disabled patients from being forced to sign end-of-life agreements during an emergency.
Since COVID-19 hit the state, disabled Oregonians have shared countless stories of being pressured to sign end-of-life agreements when they show up at a hospital with coronavirus symptoms. In several cases, these patients are denied assistance and support from an advocate or family members when making this decision. SB 1606 ensures that those patients won’t be discriminated against by being denied life-saving medical care due to their disability.
“Under SB 1606, no longer will people with disabilities be denied the disability support they need from people they trust while in the hospital,” said Jake Cornett, director of Disability Rights Oregon, in a statement emailed to the Mercury. “Further, this legislation makes clear that healthcare providers cannot condition treatment on a person having an end of life directive.”
Yet, Cornett said that he’d like to see the legislature go further to protect the rights of disabled Oregonians in the 2021 session.
“Additional action is needed by the Oregon Legislature to ensure people do not face discrimination in healthcare and that immediate relief is available,” Cornett said.
House Bill 4210: Ends suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay ticket fines.
The Oregon Law Center (OLC), a legal aid organization for low-income people, has been lobbying for this change for several years now. Alicia Temple, the interim director of legislative advocacy at OLC, told the Mercury that revoking a person’s driver’s license because they can’t afford to pay a traffic fine only keeps that person trapped in a “cycle of debt and poverty.”
“The difference between having $165 and being able to pay off your ticket, and not… it’s just such a significant difference for an individual or a family,” Temple said.
Temple added that many Oregonians don’t have access to reliable public transit, meaning they face a dire choice when their license is revoked: “Do you keep driving to work illegally, or do you lose your job?”
HB 4210 eases that stressor. The bill ends the practice of suspending someone’s driver’s license because they fail to pay fines associated with a traffic ticket.
Similar laws have passed in California, Montana, and Idaho in the last few years. But across the country, 42 states still suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets. Temple said that while it’s difficult to collect location-based data in Oregon, data from other states shows that more licenses are suspended in counties with higher rates of poverty. And data from the Portland metro area shows that Black Oregonians and other people of color are more likely to be pulled over by police than white drivers, leaving them more susceptible to costly traffic fines.
A version of HB 4210 was poised to pass during Oregon’s 2020 regular legislative session—but lawmakers ran out of time after state Republicans staged a walk-out over environmental legislation they opposed. The new law, which takes effect in October, might look like a random addition to the slate of special session bills, but Temple pointed out that the coronavirus-induced recession will likely leave more Oregonians unable to pay traffic fines.
“It’s a lot worse right now because of this pandemic,” she said.
Senate Bill 1602: Adds regulation for timber companies that spray aerial pesticides.
SB1602 is part of an agreement Gov. Brown brokered between environmental interest groups and the timber industry earlier this year. The law will require companies to notify areas before the aerial pesticides are sprayed in their region, and also adds buffer zones around drinking water sources, schools, and homes where the pesticides can’t be sprayed.
The bill is part of a larger effort by both sides to avoid creating environmental legislation through competing ballot measures. It’s endorsed both by major timber companies and environmental groups like the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the Audubon Society of Portland. However, some local environmental groups criticized the agreement for being too rushed and offering too many concessions to the timber industry.
Senate Bill 1605: Raises the standard for out-of-state care of Oregon foster kids.
Last year, a scathing report from OPB revealed that Oregon was sending foster children to dangerous, poorly regulated out-of-state schools and other housing facilities. The report prompted a wave of foster care reform efforts in the state, culminating in SB 1605, which establishes strict new requirements for out-of-state foster care facilities, and strengthens how the Department of Human Services will respond to allegations of abuse against foster kids.
The passage of 1605, which was championed by Sen. Sara Gelser, has already seen results: This week, all Oregon foster kids living in out-of-state, for-profit facilities were brought back to Oregon.
Senate Bill 1603: Taxes cell phone users to provide funding for municipal broadband in rural Oregon.
Technically, SB 1603 doesn’t create any new taxes—rather, it repurposes an existing one.
Before the bill passed, Oregon funded municipal broadband for its rural communities by taxing landline phone users. But as more and more people ditched their landlines for cell phones, that well of funding started to dry up—so SB 1603 switched the tax from landlines to cell phones. The tax will only amount to a few dollars a year for cell phone users, and raise an estimated $5 million a year for broadband expansions.
The bill faced some pushback from Republican lawmakers and business groups who opposed passing new tax legislation during a recession. It passed on a mostly party-line vote in both houses, making it one of the more contentious bills considered during the special session.