Organizers of a $62 million state fund created to support Black Oregonians and their businesses have allocated over 40% of their money and say people seeking grants should apply soon while funding remains.

As of Monday, the Oregon Cares Fund for Black Relief and Resiliency had approved more than $27 million in payments and paid out nearly $17 million. Those funds will support more than 7,500 Black Oregonians, more than 300 Black-owned businesses and 58 Black-led nonprofits.

The constitutionality of the fund is being challenged in court by John Day logging company Great Northern Resources. In a complaint filed last Thursday, the logging company said it expects to lose $200,000 this year because of the coronavirus recession and should be able to compete for any government-aid program for businesses that have been affected by Covid-19.

“This express use of race in distributing government money is unprecedented and blatantly unconstitutional,” the complaint asserts.

Defending its legal standing, organizers of the Oregon Cares Fund said in a statement Friday that current COVID-19 relief efforts favor “communities and businesses that operate with embedded advantages.”

“The Oregon Cares Fund would ensure that the distribution of CARES funds does not perpetuate discriminatory racial disparities,” they asserted.

Despite the lawsuit, the Oregon Cares Fund, which is being administered by a nonprofit called The Contingent in partnership with the Black United Fund, is continuing to accept applications on a rolling basis and continuing to approve and pay out funds. More than 14,000 individuals, 706 businesses and 152 nonprofits had submitted applications to the fund as of Monday.

Fund organizers said Monday that it is unclear how the lawsuit will impact the fund or how long grants will remain available. They encouraged eligible Oregonians to apply soon while the fund still has money and is legally allowed to process applications.

“The Contingent strongly believes that its community grants are consistent with the Constitution and all applicable laws,” said organizers in a statement. “Therefore, The Contingent will continue to distribute grants to those Black businesses and nonprofits adversely affected by COVID-19 until the fund is exhausted. Should a court order The Contingent to cease distributing grants, it will, of course, abide by such order.”

The Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board voted in July to allocate federal CARES Act dollars to seed the fund, despite a July 13 opinion by the Legislative Counsel’s Office that said that setting aside funds for one race could be considered unconstitutional without strong data and evidence showing “past discrimination in the economic sphere.”

At the time, proponents of the fund pointed to a legal opinion from firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt that contended that Black Oregonians are both suffering disproportionate economic harms from COVID-19 and receiving disproportionate aid from existing relief efforts. A study conducted by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in July found that Black business owners had a harder time securing coronavirus financial relief than white business owners.

— Jamie Goldberg

(c)2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

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