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What is a special session? Questions and answers
On Wednesday, the Legislature convened for the first of what could be multiple special legislative sessions. Let’s go through the basics.
What is a special session?
Article IV of the Oregon Constitution describes some activities of the Legislature and characteristics of legislative sessions, including “regular” and “special” sessions. Regular sessions occur annually and are limited to 160 days in an odd-numbered year and 35 days in an even-numbered year. There are other constitutional requirements detailed, including minimum quorum requirements for legislator attendance and the number of votes required for passage of various types of measures. The Constitution establishes that these requirements are part of the legislative authority to make law.
A special session is a legislative session that has all the same requirements and authorities as a regular session but that occurs at an unusual time and in response to unusual circumstances.
How does a special session begin?
The Oregon Constitution permits the governor and Legislature a few different methods of entering into a special session. The most common method is the governor calling the Legislature into session in response to an emergency, and that is what Gov. Kate Brown did.
What is an "emergency”?
The Constitution does not describe what constitutes an emergency, and there has been litigation on the issue in the past. Generally, the Oregon Supreme Court interpreted “an emergency” using a plain-language definition, and there is no requirement for a formal declaration of emergency. In this current situation, where Brown has issued a declaration of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no doubt that the governor is within her constitutional powers to call the Legislature into a special session.
How often do special sessions occur?
Special sessions happen with some frequency, and their use has changed since the Oregon Constitution was altered to require annual regular sessions ahead of the 2012 short session. Before 2012, the Legislature met once a biennium, normally from January to July, in odd-numbered years. That meant interim periods between sessions were quite long, and special sessions were called in response to occurrences in the state that necessitated legislative reaction.
From 2012 to 2019, three special sessions occurred, in 2012, 2013 and 2018. Each time they were called by the governor to pass specific bills that were discussed and agreed upon by legislative leadership and the governor before the session was called.
Is this first special session basically the same as these previous three special sessions?
It is similar, but much broader in scope for a few basic reasons:
- The COVID-19 crisis has crippled the economy and public life statewide and has impacted almost every facet of Oregonians’ daily life.
- The power and frequency of protests for racial justice in response to the death of George Floyd and other people of color at the hands of police nationally has caused calls for police reform legislation.
- The 2020 regular legislative session was broken by partisan disagreement between Democrats and Republicans. The bills proposed that session included a great many technical fixes and changes to laws that agencies and other stakeholders need to operate properly. Because that session ended with legislator walkouts, almost none of the major needs of state government were addressed by the Legislature, and so it will take up some of those needs in this special session.
Is there a prescribed end date for a special session?
Unlike a regular session, there is no prescribed end date in the constitution for emergency special sessions of this kind. If they want to end the session, then a majority of legislators in each chamber must vote to pass a motion to end it. That motion is a measure to “adjourn sine die,” which is a holdover from ancient assemblies and means that the Legislature will adjourn without a future meeting date.
Why do you keep saying this is the first special session of 2020? Is there a reason?
Yes. There is every reason to believe this will be the first of multiple special sessions called over the next few months. Statewide revenue projections have dropped dramatically, and the Legislature will not address any budget issues this special session. Brown has said explicitly that she “will call a second special session” to address budgets later this summer.
Where can I find more information about the history of and procedures around special legislative sessions in Oregon?
The Legislative Policy and Research Office, which is responsible for providing non-partisan staff for most legislative committees, recently published a background brief on special sessions. That is the perfect place to look for more information.
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist