Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Sept. 30, 2020

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No agreement yet over inclusion of policy bills in Oregon Legislature’s special session

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As Oregon lawmakers prepare for next week’s special session, it remains unclear if bills altering policy will be considered, or if the session will focus solely on rebalancing the state budget.

Gov. Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, have indicated they are open to moving legislation focused on police reform measures, refining bills that passed during the first special session.

“The Legislature made progress on this issue in June, but the work is far from finished and we need to continue to build on the energy of this historic movement,” Kotek said in a statement.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has said the session should focus on the budget and the work needed to respond to a $1.2 billion revenue hole, which must be accounted for by the end of the biennium.

The chairs of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee worked for months before releasing a proposed budget in mid-July. It makes $387 million in cuts across state agencies while utilizing $400 million in emergency funds from the Education Stability Fund to keep K-12 schools fully funded.

“I think we should be focused on the budget at this time,” Courtney said. “I don’t want anything to get in the way of that.”

Legislative leaders also have to weigh the risk of lawmakers or staff contracting COVID-19. Daily cases in Oregon are at least as high now as they were when the Legislature previously convened, and many lawmakers are in the population considered more at-risk for severe outcomes from the virus.

Conversations over inclusion of policy bills will occur over the next few days.

The four partisan caucuses will also have input in the final decision. Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod, R-Stayton, released a statement when the special session was announced that was unambiguous: “Policy bills should be off the table. The focus should be on the budget.”

The session is scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Monday, Aug. 10. It could conclude in as little as two days, but could stretch longer if policy bills are also deliberated.

Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, said that, as far as he knows, the session will be about rebalancing the state budget. He has not yet heard differently from legislative leadership.

But if policy bills were to be put on the table, the most likely legislation would come out of the Joint Committee for Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform, which Manning co-chairs.

Manning said there are two bills ready to go for the special session, both adjustments to bills that were passed during the previous special session.

One would strengthen the new statewide ban on chokeholds by including corrections officers and removing the provision that allows the technique’s use during circumstances requiring deadly physical force.

“It did not go far enough. I want an outright ban,” Manning said. “You’re saying that choking the life out of a person is a tool in your tool box and that is something you want to hold on to. That is frightening, that is scary.”

The other bill would add significant language around definitions and procedures for use of tear gas and less-lethal projectiles used by police in crowd control situations.

The bill defines terms such as “riot,” “toxic chemical” and “kinetic impact projectile” with specificity, which was lacking in the original version.

For crowd control settings, the bill would change procedures for use of pepper spray, ban the use of acoustic cannons, and disallow the use of “kinetic impact projectiles” except in circumstances where someone has or is committing a felony or is putting someone at risk of severe bodily harm.

Manning is a former police officer. He said these bills would help law enforcement by standardizing rules across the state, whereas now jurisdictions have different rules regarding the deployment of these techniques.

Bans of these devices have been sought with increasing urgency during the weeks of protest sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Police officers have testified these tools are sometimes necessary in crowd control situations.

Manning’s committee has met nine times since the previous special session ended, hearing testimony on how to reform Oregon’s police departments. The committee’s next meeting is Wednesday.

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