Special session could offer some clarity on school budgets
Oregon school leaders this summer have been building 2020-21 plans on the shifting sands of an uncertain budget and an evolving pandemic. The Aug. 10 legislative special session could offer some firmer financial footing but will likely leave COVID-19 liability protection for another day.
Gov. Kate Brown called this second special session to settle state budget issues. Oregon is facing a roughly $1.2 billion revenue shortfall this biennium.
Legislative leaders said they don’t want to bring up policy issues this session, but education advocates have been asking legislators to address COVID-19 liability protection essential to schools reopening their doors.
A task force has been working since the first special session with representatives of schools, businesses, medical care, employee groups and trial lawyers to hash out the nature and extent of protections.
The issue’s complexity would make it nearly impossible to have a bill ready for this special session, OSBA Legislative Services Director Lori Sattenspiel said on Friday. Sattenspiel, who has been in on the talks, said OSBA continues to encourage education advocates to urge legislators to act on liability protection in a session in the near future.
On Monday, liability protection was not among the draft bills posted.
Sattenspiel said it’s looking like there is enough agreement on budgets that this special session will wrap up quickly.
Budget fix proposals from legislators and Brown would spare schools from taking the brunt of cuts.
A proposal released by the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee would keep the $9 billion State School Fund whole, as well as fully fund the High School Success Act, known as Measure 98.
Corporate activities tax revenue for the Student Success Fund is estimated to be about two-thirds of the original forecast and would be reallocated. Early learning and some statewide initiatives would receive their original funding, while the direct grants to schools in the Student Investment Account would be about one-third of their original estimates.
School business officials say that proposal comes close to meeting current service level needs even with some shifted costs for distance learning and hybrid education plans.
Sen. Arnie Roblan, a member of the Ways and Means Committee and recent chair of the Senate Education Committee, said legislators have been working for months on the rebalancing plan.
According to Roblan, economists told the legislators that the State School Fund needed to be held harmless both for the future of the workforce and the present need for child supervision so parents can work.
“The people who understand the economy are telling us how important schools are,” said Roblan, D-Coos Bay.
Legislators are looking at tapping $400 million from the Education Stability Fund, about half its estimated total.
The Legislature needs to be careful about using reserve funds because bigger budget shortfalls are forecast for the next two biennia, Roblan said. Milliman, the state’s actuary, told legislators that total revenues would fall $4.4 billion for 2021-23 and $3.4 billion for 2023-25.
Roblan is among the legislators skeptical about tackling policy issues such as liability protection during this session.
School leaders and businesses are worried about financially crippling lawsuits linked to COVID-19 illnesses, and insurance companies no longer offer coverage that could blunt the risk. School leaders are asking for temporary immunity during the pandemic to discourage frivolous but expensive lawsuits.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a member of the task force, said the group is still discussing the extent of protections to offer and trying to address school, business and medical facility concerns.
“You have different parts to it, and I’m not sure all of it fits into one package,” said Prozanski, D-Eugene.
Sen. Lynn Findley, a member of the task force, said liability protection is among the most important policy issues facing the Legislature.
“I would hope we could provide protections,” said Findley, R-Vale.
Sattenspiel said the Legislature is unlikely to tackle anything else of significance for education during this special session. She said schools still need some action on regulatory state requirements such as physical education and instructional time. Without some flexibility in the law, schools will have a tough time staying in compliance.
Oregon will likely have at least one more special session to address more budget issues and possibly policy issues. Congress could still pass more emergency aid for states, and the Legislature will receive a state economic report Sept. 23 that may call for more budget rebalancing.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
*This story was updated Monday, Aug. 10.