JOHN DAY — The 2023 legislative session in Oregon was a busy one, complete with controversial bills and a walkout by 10 Republican and Independent state senators that may disqualify them from running in upcoming elections.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, both represent Eastern Oregon districts that include Grant County. In recent interviews with the Blue Mountain Eagle, they looked back on the 2023 legislative session and highlighted wins along with challenges they’ll face in the future.
Both Owens and Findley touted Senate Bill 498, which provides an estate tax exemption of up to $15 million for properties that are used as part of a farming, fishing or forestry business. Owens said the bill will allow farms and ranches to remain with families who started and grew the operations.
“To me, that was a big one,” Owens said.
“That was a huge win for rural Oregon,” Findley said about the bill.
The second piece of legislation the duo cited is a bill signed into law in Prairie City. SB 955 provides a suicide prevention crisis line for farmers and ranchers.
“That program was set forward … at the request of Grant County folks, Wallowa County folks, so it’s a great program that is absolutely needed,” Findley said.
Owens reiterated the need, saying that Oregon has one of the highest suicide rates in the country and that farmers and ranchers have a suicide rate that is 32% higher than the overall rate for the state.
It wasn’t all high points, however, especially for Findley. He was among the senators who participated in a walkout during the session to block key pieces of Democrat-backed legislation.
While Findley prefers to say he and his Republican and Independent colleagues simply denied the majority Democrats a quorum, the action still resulted in enough unexcused absences from the legislative session that his eligibility to run for reelection in the 2024 election is in serous jeopardy. Oregon Measure 113, passed by voters last year, bars legislators with more than 10 unexcused absences from running for reelection.
Although the walkout appears to have been aimed at derailing a pair of Democrat-backed bills, one dealing with gun control and the other with abortion rights and transgender health care, Findley insists that’s not why he joined it. Rather, he said the action arose due to a disagreement about the readability of multiple bills, which are supposed to be written at an eighth-grade level.
The six-week walkout ended after Democrats agreed to modify provisions of the two bills in response to Republican demands.
Findley was staunch in his position that his own reason for the unexcused absences was due to the readability of proposed bills, which he said also got fixed as a result of the walkout.
“My oath of office meant more to me than being a state senator,” he said.
“I can either violate my oath of office and show up or I can stay away and uphold my oath of office, and that’s what I did.”
Findley’s ability to run for another four-year term in 2024 will come down to a legal fight. Findley and the other senators who are barred from running for reelection have already sought legal counsel, and the case is being fast-tracked to appear before the Oregon Supreme Court before the 2024 elections.
“Yes, there is going to be a legal challenge to that measure (Measure 113) to see if that holds up,” Owens said.
Until then, Findley and Owens have a short legislative session upcoming in February that both have described as being focused mainly on housekeeping.
“It’s for budgetary fixes. It’s for tweaking policy that we’ve gotten wrong,” Owens said.
SALEM — A 24/7 suicide prevention hotline geared specifically for agricultural workers is now available in Oregon.
State lawmakers passed Senate Bill 955 earlier this year, providing $300,000 in an endowment to Oregon State University to implement the AgriStress Helpline. Gov. Tina Kotek signed the bill into law at a ceremony on Thursday, July 20, in Prairie City.
TheAgriStress Helpline was created by AgriSafe Network, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the health and safety of agricultural workers living in rural communities.
Specialists at the helpline receive 300-plus hours of training from licensed clinicians to understand the unique stresses and challenges of farming, ranching, fishing and forestry. They can also refer callers to mental health resources and care providers in their area.
Allison Myers, associate dean of extension and engagement at the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said agricultural workers are more vulnerable to suicide compared to the general population. According to the National Rural Health Association, the rate of suicide for farmers is more than three times higher than the national average per capita.
“They’re often more rural, which means you have more limited access to care,” Myers said. “They also face unique stressors on the job. The hours are very long, the financial overlays are difficult and there are risks involved given unknowns on the economics of a situation.”
There is also a more pronounced and self-imposed stigma that farmers and ranchers attach to experiencing mental health challenges, Myers said. However, the reality is that 1 in 5 people in the U.S. struggle with a mental health condition.
“It could happen to anybody at any point in their lives. It doesn’t discriminate,” she said.
The purpose of the hotline is to help those in crisis talk through what they are feeling and de-escalate suicidal thoughts, Myers said.
“It is the human connection that can help them get through that awful moment,” she said.
The helpline is now available in seven states: Oregon, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wyoming and Connecticut. A coalition of 27 farm groups and health care organizations advocated passage of SB 955, which allocated $300,000 from the state general fund for an endowment to the OSU Foundation.
Money from the endowment will go to OSU Extension Service to administer the helpline.
Myers, who also leads the OSU Extension Family and Community Health program, said it costs $70,000 per year to keep the helpline running. She raised an additional $68,000 from the Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization and Roundhouse Foundation to establish the line in Oregon.
The endowment returns about 4%, or $12,000 per year, to run the line. Myers said she will continue fundraising, and she encouraged anyone interested in donating to the endowment.
“I believe very strongly in my role, and this is the kind of work that helps us meet our land grant mission to serve the people of Oregon,” she said.
Todd Nash, a Wallowa County commissioner and president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said he was grateful for the “heroic” efforts to pass SB 955 before the end of the 2023 legislative session. The bill was one of the last to pass out of the House.
“This is an important subject matter that nobody really wants to talk about,” Nash said. “But it is important that we make this something that is front and center. It affects our families, it affects our communities, it affects our industry, and we want to bring more attention to suicide and the prevention of it.”