SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers, most wearing masks and trying to maintain social distance, began a special session Wednesday to crack down on police brutality and throw a lifeline to those suffering financially from the coronavirus.
“This is a catastrophic disaster session,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told a press conference on Zoom, saying racial discrimination, police brutality and “a monster disease that won’t let us out” must be dealt with.
Draft measures would mandate rent protections during the coronavirus emergency and prohibit a lender from treating a borrower’s failure to make loan payment as a declaration of default.
They would also prohibit law enforcement officers from limiting the ability of a person to breathe, create a statewide online database of discipline records, prevent an arbitrator from reducing punishments for officers, ban the use of tear gas on protesters and allow the state attorney general to investigate and prosecute when officers kill or seriously injure a person.
Lawmakers had passed four bills out of committee by Wednesday afternoon, the Statesman Journal reported.
They would: extend small school district grants and school district funding for foreign exchange students; create an Eastern Oregon economic development grant program; and halt the courts from suspending someone’s driver’s license for failure to pay a traffic-related fine.
The fourth bill contained forestry-related provisions stemming from a memorandum of understanding between Oregon’s forest industry and environmental interests from earlier this year.
Some pushback was expected from law enforcement groups on those measures.
"My hope is that decisions will be made based upon facts, evidence and data, not on emotions, politics or perception,” Jim Ferraris, president of the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police and police chief of Woodburn, told a joint panel Tuesday.
Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who is Black, believes there will be changes after the death of George Floyd.
“I can’t say that they’re going to be all of the changes that I might want to see, but I think we’re going to see some changes,” Frederick said in a recent phone interview. But people also need to start talking about the role of police, he said.
“Is the role for police to be as intimidating as possible? Then don’t tell me that you want to have community policing because that goes against the community policing concept by itself," Frederick said.
The session convened for an undetermined number of days less than four months after the regular 2020 session ended acrimoniously and early.
Back then, Republican lawmakers, who are the minority in both the House and Senate, staged a boycott to block a bill aimed at reducing Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions, leaving many other bills to wither and die.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans voted against aspects of the special session, including that only the Senate president and House speaker can create bills or amendments.
“We have no rights to write a bill. We have no rights to amend a bill,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod of Stayton told Courtney on the Senate floor. “I’m sorry but that is just plain wrong.”
Special provisions were aimed at preventing those from attending the session from contracting COVID-19. Masks were required for staff but only recommended for lawmakers, some of whom skipped wearing them.
Lawmakers feeling sick or with a temperature, or who live with someone who was recently ill, were told to stay home.
The scene was completely different from past gatherings in the 82-year-old marble-covered capitol building. Instead of lobbyists, lawmakers and visitors wandering the halls or huddled in groups, the building was closed to the public, with access controlled by badges or special permission from legislative leadership.
Dining rooms were closed, drinking fountains turned off and bathrooms restricted to single occupancy.
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