Oregon Lawmakers Bitterly Debate Who Should Receive Aid Money After Two Months of Shutdown

Should COVID relief be directed toward the counties hit hardest by the virus, or distributed equally among all the places that paused economic activity during the lockdown?

A Northeast Portland man picks up a newspaper. (Brian Burk)

Even as the citizens of Oregon reemerge this weekend from two months of economic freeze, a fracture has appeared in the Legislature over who should be compensated for an extraordinary shutdown of daily life and commerce.

A legislative vote to approve a plan for spending nearly $1.4 billion in federal relief money turned contentious this afternoon, as Oregon Republicans accused the state's top Democrats of conspiring behind closed doors to distribute funding disproportionately to counties in the Willamette Valley.

Every Republican member on the Joint Emergency Board of the Oregon Legislature defected from the spending plan today, and it passed by a vote along party lines.

"I do not have faith moving forward," said House Minority Leader Christine Drazen (R-Canby). "We have been at this since March 8. The transparency and accountability have not improved."

At issue: the formula for distributing $1.39 billion in federal aid approved for Oregon governments via the CARES Act. The federal money arrives at a time when lawmakers aren't in session—or even in their offices. That left the task of approving aid spending to the Joint Emergency Board, a legislative committee tasked with allocating dollars when lawmakers aren't convened.

Disagreement today centered on a philosophical quandary: Should COVID relief money be directed toward the counties hit hardest by the virus, or distributed equally among all the places that paused economic activity during the lockdown?

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) recommended sending $415 million of that money to counties and tribes to reimburse governments for what they spent on direct COVID-19 response.

That formula would send money to counties that spent the most on COVID-19 outbreaks. So the counties that saw the most cases—such as Marion County, the epicenter of the outbreak—are likely to have more expenses to invoice.

Brown, Kotek and Courtney determined that Multnomah and Washington counties, which received direct funding from the CARES Act, aren't eligible for this money. "Since Multnomah County, Washington County, and the city of Portland received a total of $247 million directly from the U.S. Treasury, this set aside for local government and tribes is for entities outside of the boundaries of the two counties," a legislative document says. (That's a contentious question itself, as The Oregonian reported today.)

But in a board meeting held via video conferencing today, Republicans—who represent counties that have seen few COVID-19 cases—argued that Brown, Kotek and Courtney had ignored their districts' financial pain, and decried the process as secretive.

A harried Courtney defended the process. "I'm hearing so many stories," he said. "People are hurting so badly. We've got to move. We've got to move now."

The rancor reflected both the bitter partisanship that has dominated the Legislature for several years as Republicans have slipped further into the minority, and the high stakes of the moment, when federal relief dollars may be the only lifeline for keeping parts of Oregon solvent. Resentment is especially strong because rural counties, mostly controlled by Republicans, haven't always agreed with the scope of the governor's stay-home orders.

The concerns about the aid money's distribution were most clearly articulated by state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who ultimately voted for the spending framework.

She argued that counties that saw few COVID-19 cases, and never had to ramp up their medical response, still had to shut down for nearly two months and suffered deep economic damage as a result. She cited Tillamook County, one of the coastal counties that endured the highest rates of layoffs during the shutdown.

"I'm worried about Tillamook County," Johnson said. "Tillamook County is one of the hardest-hit counties in the entire state. Will those counties with few cases be penalized, even though these counties have suffered ferocious economic pain?"

Kotek replied that every county had spent money on COVID-19 response.

"Whether it was buying gloves for their firefighters, or paying for some outreach, everybody probably had some expenses," she said. "We wanted to start there."

Kotek's office later noted that another $514 million remains in reserve to distribute to counties later this year—so this isn't the only bite at the apple for rural Oregon.

Johnson asked whether the state's top officials shouldn't have taken input from people across the state before deciding on a framework.

"It feels a little like we're telling people what's good for them," she said, "rather than having a process where they can give input to the chairs and the governor."

Courtney acknowledged the plan had been decided in private. But he maintained that the unprecedented circumstances left little option.

"You have huge public hearings all over the state?" he asked. "I'm not sure what you do here."

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