Eastern Oregon lawmakers host virtual town hall on Wednesday

ONTARIO — Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, are hosting another joint virtual town hall on Wednesday to catch their constituents up on how things are going in Salem.

Findley represents Senate District 30, which includes Baker, Crook, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur and parts of Deschutes and Jefferson counties; Owens represents Senate District 60, which includes Baker, Grant, Harney, Lake, Malheur and parts of Deschutes County. Each is the chief sponsor of dozens of the thousands of bills introduced this session.

The 82nd Oregon Legislative Assembly has four months remaining and the state revenue forecast was just released on Feb. 22.

The lawmakers’ virtual town hall will be from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. MT

“We’ll discuss and take questions about the legislative session, what to expect on the policy horizon, issues in our communities and your priorities for the legislature this year,” reads information on the event. “We have learned a lot from you in these town halls and this helps us serve you better by being your voice in Salem. Most importantly, we want to hear from you and give you an opportunity to ask questions, share what’s on your mind and how we can help represent you.”

Questions can be submitted in advance, using Q&A during the event or asked live during the virtual town hall.

The meeting will be broadcast live on Facebook as well as Zoom. The link for the Zoom meeting is http://bit.ly/3xQcfWd and the meeting ID is 897 4440 5364. Those using Zoom must register prior to attending the event. That can be done online at http://bit.ly/3m6C1Df.

Local state lawmakers catch up with constituents

Ontario Community Recreation Center hearing, fixes for small school boards and farmland in focus

ONTARIO — Andrew Maeda, executive director of Ontario Recreation District traveled to Salem for a public hearing this week and it went well. That was one piece of a large update Wednesday morning on how things are going in Oregon’s legislative session.

Providing the update and opportunity to dialogue were Dist. 30 Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and Dist. 60 Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane. Their respective districts include Malheur County.

Thanks to co-hosts Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce and Treasure Valley Community College, the Legislative Hotline is expected to continue the third Wednesday of each month through the session, with other cities or counties in the lawmakers’ districts eventually getting patched in, too. The meetings will be in the Hanigan Board Room in the Laura Moore Cunningham Science Center at TVCC. This is the same room where the TVCC Board of Education holds its monthly meetings.

Findley said the pace of the session, which is in its fifth week, has picked up significantly, with some bills now going across chambers. The first deadline is two weeks away to read the bills or they start dying.

With about 4,000 bills, Findley noted, that will be a good thing. Owens remarked how each legislative committee has been assigned about 90 bills and won’t be able to get to them all.

Today marks the final day for Legislative Concepts to get out of the office for introduction.

This coming Tuesday is the expected day for the revenue forecast for February, which will “get us rolling” on the budget. That forecast is expected to set the stage and Findley said “there’s a lot of apprehension we may be in a deeper hole that we thought.”

Owens pointed out how more contentious bills are going to be coming down the pipeline in the next week; however, added that the atmosphere at the Capitol has “been more bipartisan.” He said that is intentional on the Democrat leadership, with conversations happening on everything from “the most conservative bill to the most liberal bill.”

“Which I haven’t seen before this session,” Owens said, adding that it was a good thing.

The majority party is allowing hearings on bills that would never have had hearings before and “setting a more positive tone in the building.”

Rec center bill picks up bipartisan support

Findley and Owens are chief sponsors of House Bill 2410 aimed at getting lottery bonds to build the Ontario Community Recreation Center which had a hearing on Tuesday. There are currently 59 written comments in support of it, all from citizens in the Ontario area.

The hearing was held on Tuesday by the House Committee on Emergency Management, General Government and Veterans. HB 2410 authorizes the issuance of $4.5 million in lottery bonds to facilitate the construction and project management of the Ontario Community Recreation Center.

Owens noted how they had heard some questions from other lawmakers about why they needed to have a hearing on a bill for a capital construction request. He said sometimes those requests come with a compelling story, like Ontario’s, and need help from the community in pushing it through Ways and Means.

Findley said that the hearing was “excellent,” and that he heard from some of the majority party afterward.

“It’s gaining bipartisan support,” he said, noting how that was important as lawmakers would have to hone down what projects they will allocate funding to. HB 2410 carries an emergency declaration.

Findley said that he got a call from Maeda on Sunday asking whether he should attend in person or virtually.

“I don’t think you can beat in person,” Findley said, emphasizing how it help with networking.

Owens said Maeda “did a great job” at the hearing and Findley commented how Maeda stood in the hallway afterward and had at least three lawmakers come by and shake his hand, telling him he did a good job.

Findley said he knows how hard it is to travel from Malheur County to Salem, which takes 7 to 8.5 hours.

“It’s a big commitment to come, and sometimes it’s worth it,” he said. “We’re happy with how the hearing went and we’ll see how it goes.”

Bills with legs include fix for small school boards

There are a lot of bills floating around for eastern Oregon and some for Malheur County “have some legs,” according to Findley.

This includes mirror bills, Senate Bill 66 and House Bill 2505, both of which aim to allow municipalities to raise up the local tax collected on the sale of marijuana goods and bills on exemptions for the corporate activity tax, a bill regarding what to do with batteries from electric vehicles; and House Bill 2689 that would allow processing of 1,000 meat rabbits or fewer to be sold for local meat (that stemmed from a 13-year-old from Baker County who raises rabbits).

One that received unanimous support was House Bill 2764 A, which came about due to Michael Vaughan, who went missing at the age of 5 near his home in Fruitland, Idaho, in July of 2021. He still has not been found.

The bill would create a stopgap for persons not eligible for Amber Alerts, but who may still be missing or endangered.

“Remember Michael Vaughan? Idaho like all 50 states, couldn’t issue an Amber Alert because there was no suspect vehicle and a lot of things, they couldn’t put out, basically what I call and APB,” Owens said.

He noted that Idaho and Washington have since created a new system and that Oregon had started on that journey with four amendments now combined into one.

The bill would allow Oregon State Police to craft a missing and endangered response. Owens noted that there are typically 1,300 people on the missing endangered list, this bill should hopefully reduce that. The bill passed unanimously in the House and was referred to the Senate Labor and Business committee on Thursday.

Another bill Owens is hopeful will pass is House Bill 3203, floated by Dist. 56 Rep. Emily McIntire. That bill would be a fix to a bill that was passed in 2022 which requires school board members to fill out Statement of Economic Interest forms. That law goes into effect April 15.

“For a lot of our farmers and ranchers, it’s pretty obnoxious,” he said. “We got calls from Arock, Jordan Valley, Crane, Nyssa, with ‘What is this? We will resign before the April 15 deadline.’”

HB 3203 would exempt board members in schools with 7,500 or fewer students. While that wouldn’t cover Baker or Ontario, it would help out those smaller, more rural districts.

Owens said they fought against the bill last year on behalf of small school districts, but “got railed hard.” But now, with so much pushback from members of small boards, the lawmakers made their case for an exemption. Owens says it is expected to pass through both chambers; However, it’s unknown if it the governor will be able to sign it by April 15 when the new rule kicks in.

“We will make sure there are no fines” for people in small school districts who have not filled them out by then.

Rezoning non-irrigated farmland fix gets ‘major pushback’

One bill that is receiving major pushback is Senate Bill 70 for which a public hearing was held Feb. 8. The bill is a technical fix for the Eastern Oregon Economic Development Region and regards rezoning non-irrigated farmland to residential land. The bill only impacts lands that have not been employed for farm use in the prior three years. It does not include high-value farmland, land with predominantly composed Class I, II or III soils or land which is viable for reasonably obtaining a profit through farm use.

Findley said the Bill was a technical fix to one that passed two years ago and that he thought it would move through well.

“That is not the case, we’re receiving major pushback,” he said. “It’s going to be a tough road, as the opposition to that bill is intense.”

He said lawmakers were receiving thousands of emails about how terrible the bill is, adding “it’s really not.”

“Some in Oregon say it is an effort by eastern Oregon to build vacation homes on exclusive farm ground,” Owens said, noting they had showed them maps explaining how it is not. “It’s extremely frustrating the lack of information people have when they go into hard-press opposition to it.”

Mike Blackaby noted that he thinks those opposed believe the bill is “taking land that is irrigated. If you sent a picture, you could see it is not — it is sagebrush.”

Findley noted the land in question was near the Owyhee Irrigation District and would only fit about 100 homes on 2-acre lots. Some have suggested to use Ontario’s Urban Reserve area instead, however Findley said that it’s all Class I farmland and as such, not an option in his mind.

“It’s a lack of education on their part and a lack of becoming educated,” he said. “They just want to throw rocks.”

The lawmakers said with all the opposition, it would be nice to see letters of support from residents in the county. Findley added that Border Board Executive Director Shawna Peterson did “an incredible job testifying last week,” but added that it was “hard to convince people when they don’t want to learn.”

Owens also suggested emailing Sen. Jeff Golden at Sen.JeffGolden@oregonlegislature.gov to express concern about the misinformation over SB 70 and request a meeting. Golden is the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee which held the hearing.

Oregon politicos mull adding more animal crossings on highways

A bill intended to reduce expensive, and potentially fatal, collisions between cars and wildlife on Oregon’s highways had its first public hearing recently in Salem.

House Bill 2999, which would allocate $5 million to build wildlife underpasses, fences and other structures, had a hearing Feb. 9 in the House Committee on Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources and Water.

State Rep. Ken Helm, a Democrat from Beaverton, is among the chief sponsors for the bill.

“Oregon has taken important first steps on badly needed wildlife crossing solutions,” Helm said in a news release. “This bill will keep us moving on implementation of projects with real benefits for communities across the state, urban and rural alike.”

Other chief sponsors include Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, whose district includes Baker County.

Similar legislation, proposing to spend $7 million wildlife crossings, was still in committee when the Legislature’s short 2022 session adjourned.

The Oregon Department of Transportation recorded 4,874 wildlife-vehicle collisions in 2022. Studies show that close to three times as many incidents aren’t reported, according to a press release from Helm’s office.

The total cost when a vehicle hits a deer averages about $17,000, including vehicle repairs and medical costs, along with the loss of hunting value as the animal rarely survives.

The cost from a collision with an elk is much higher, with an average of $56,800.

“Already a species in decline, mule deer casualties from collisions with vehicles significantly harm our efforts to help them recover” said Tim Greseth, executive director of the Oregon Wildlife Foundation. “Interactions with wildlife on roadways also result in injuries and, tragically, fatalities of motorists.”

Oregon, with five wildlife crossings, has relatively few compared with other western states. Colorado has 65 such structures, Utah and California have 50 each, and Nevada has 23.

Helm and other proponents of his legislation have pointed out that wildlife crossings have proved to be effective at saving animals.

The state installed both an underpass and fencing along Highway 97 near Sunriver in 2012, and the result was an 86% decline in reported collisions over seven years.

Top priorities for future projects, based on the number of collisions reported, include Interstate 84 near Meacham, which is a major elk travel corridor, Highway 26 near Dayville in Grant County, Highway 20 in Deschutes County, and Highway 140 near Klamath Falls.

Projects underway include additional crossings on Highway 97, Interstate 5 through the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument near the California border, and Highway 20 on the Burns Paiute Tribe’s land in Malheur County.

Helm’s bill, in addition to setting aside $5 million for wildlife crossings, could help the state leverage considerably more federal money.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Congress passed in 2021, includes $350 million in competitive grants for states, Tribes and cities.

Reducing vehicle collisions isn’t the only potential benefit of wildlife crossings, said Tyler Dungannon, conservation coordinator for the Oregon Hunters Association.

“Migratory wildlife need to move seasonally, and highways can be barriers that restrict these essential movements, so the issue extends far beyond direct wildlife mortality on roads,” Dungannon said. “Highways are limiting wildlife population growth rates via wildlife-vehicle collisions as well as inhibiting wildlife migration.”

A 2020 poll commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 86% of Oregonians surveyed, from across the state and across the political spectrum, supported the state building more wildlife crossings.

When given the chance to do the right thing, Oregon Department of Forestry takes a pass

By Senator Lynn Findley and Representative Mark Owens
August 3, 2022

If there is one thing we would expect the Oregon Department of Forestry to be intimately familiar with, it would be correctly assessing wildfire risk. Apparently, this is not the case.

During the 2021 legislative session, in the wake of unprecedented catastrophic wildfires in 2020, the legislature passed Senate Bill 762 which was created to mitigate future significant loss, lack of preparedness and financial hardship in future wildfires, among many other things.

Unfortunately, the Oregon Department of Forestry and Board of Forestry have moved fast and loose with its enactment at the expense of Oregonians.

First, one of the many components of SB 762 was a clear definition of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and a Wildfire Risk Assessment. These were sticking points in the passage of the bill, and ultimately settled on the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) working with a group to complete the definition effort in a timely manner and OSU completing the Risk Map.  It is our understanding the effort was completed on time, however, several members of the definition group felt railroaded and silenced and did not agree with the final results. In the final rulemaking, over 35 pages of text was stricken down to a mere one sentence.

Secondly, the effort regarding creation of a Wildfire Risk Map is a complete and total failure. The map was produced by Oregon State University (OSU) and ODF, and enacted as the final map without any local review. During the brief and quietly publicized public comment period, there was nothing on which to comment—the map was not ready.

Third, this map utilizes tax lots as the basis for identification. The intent of SB 762 was to further identify risk within the WUI; however, the map produced was a statewide map with no delineation for WUI nor any exclusion of non-WUI tax lots.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of tax lots outside the WUI that are now classified as extreme or high risk. This is a major problem for homeowners as insurers will most certainly raise rates, or as we have heard from our constituents, threaten outright policy cancellations. In addition, Oregon State University personnel has used a fuel model for the calculation that was very aggressive which only complicates matters. There are hundreds of irrigated farm fields and meadows now classified as high and extreme risk.

Last and very importantly, the state cannot simply unveil and implement a map with such enormous shortcoming and implications, and attempt to address the problems through an online appeal process for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians. Not to mention and unsurprisingly, the online appeals process does not even work—the website crashes, links are broken, the phone number goes to a voicemail, calls aren’t returned, and questions go unanswered.

Collectively, we represent forty-three percent of the state geographically including some of the most wildfire prone forests and communities, greatest number of acres of farm and, least affordable housing, and largest populations of seniors and families at or below average income levels. Now, not only do our constituents need to worry about wildfires for their safety and livelihoods, but they also have to worry about going bankrupt due to a mismanaged mapping process.

The State of Oregon has an immediate obligation on behalf of its citizens to inform insurance companies the map was not designed for or to be used for insurance ratings or actuarial use. The map was not “ground-truthed” before it was enacted, and had no peer review, no local reviews and most importantly, no opportunity for public review and comment before issuance.

The map as it stands has no credibility. It serves as an ill-informed, unreviewed, and dangerous and divisive product pitting homeowners against the state of Oregon. Pulling back the maps and pausing the process has had executive level and bipartisan legislative level support. The Oregon Department of Forestry had a chance to restart the process and blatantly chose not to do so.

We need to stop this process and recall the map, and allow landowners, county planners, and local fire agencies to review each site and develop an accurate map reflecting efforts by homeowners to mitigate the risk through fuel reduction and building materials to collate a final product. We realize this could add significant amount of time to the effort, but we believe it is imperative we do so.

Anything less than full-stop pausing, pulling back and reassessing is pure arrogance by the State of Oregon.

Ag overtime bill impacts anybody ‘growing anything out of the ground’

Argus Observer | March 24, 2022

ONTARIO — “I was elected to stand and fight, not run and hide. And while I think it’s a terrible bill and spoke against it, I stood and fought, as I believe that’s my job.” This was the response of Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, to a question posed about House Bill 4002 during a question-and-answer session at a virtual town hall on March 17. The question from a constituent was why the Senate didn’t walk out of the 2022 legislative session to prevent the passage of the bill, which created overtime pay for farm workers.

Findley clarified that when he and colleagues walked out three years ago over the cap and trade, it wasn’t because they didn’t like the legislation. It was because the “majority party changed the rules and fixed the vote.”

Another town hall attendee thanked Findley for “standing and fighting.”

As passed, House Bill 4002 will see the workweek that triggers overtime pay for farm workers stagger down over five years. In 2023-24 it will be 55 hours, in 25-26 it will be 48 and by 2027 it will be 40 hours.

In a nutshell, the bill impacts anybody “growing anything out of the ground”; offers a tax incentive; and allows some exemptions for salary paid positions and for livestock and dairy operations, according to Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles.

He said those working to push the bill through didn’t understand that for some crops, the entire harvest time might be only eight to nine weeks, and that the work could not be accomplished in an 8-hour work day.

Bonham cited a “massive labor coalition, which consisted only of about 10% farmworkers,” as another reason the bill was able to pass. And he decried the tax incentives, saying they are “the greatest in the beginning when there is the least amount of burden, and least in the end when there is the greatest amount of burden.”

Findley and Reps. Bonham and Mark Owens, R-Crane, provided updates on this and other details of the 2022 Oregon Legislature during a virtual town hall for their constituents on March 17.

Findley and Owens respectively represent Sen. District 30 and House District 60, which both encompass Malheur County.

Nearly 200 attended the town hall. More highlights follow.

Regional water management?

When it comes to water, Owens notes that Oregon is in an 800- to 1,200-year historic drought that has left the Lake County watershed without water. Saying it is “going to be a horrific year for ranchers and farmers” there, he noted that lawmakers did not take up water policy in the recent session.

Owens said it is important for communities to have data to understand whether they can meet their current water demand as well as future demand.

He proposes a regional approach to water management, saying the state needs to be set up to assist but not oversee it. It has been up to the Oregon Water Resources Department to allocate water. While Owens previously agreed with this arrangement, he said his position has now changed.

“If the state cannot determine, they shouldn’t make that decision,” he said. “We’ve got to stop the blood flow before we can try to revive the body.”

Education

Owens said for the 2022 session, the House Education Committee was “the most controversial” that he served in.

While House Bill 4029 did not pass the session, it will likely be back in 2023. The basic description of the bill was not a bad thing, Owens said, as it required board members to know more about public meeting law, rules and details related to the budget. However, “it became cumbersome,” and would put “an enormous” amount of work on the chairperson or vice-chairperson “that doesn’t work in small communities.”

Owens said they got a lot of emails against Senate Bill 1521, but that it ultimately passed down party lines. Under that bill, a board can neither fire a superintendent for following local, state and federal laws, nor can it fire a superintendent for no cause without 12-months notice.

Owens says the bill has liability issues and might “put administrators in a horrific spot,” noting that it added a lot of things that did not have the force of law.

Stay involved

Findley, Owens and Bonham all touched on how the short session did not set out to address its original purpose. This is to meet for no more than 35 days in even years to address processes, timeframes and errors and small policy issues, according to Findley.

The senator, noting there were “good, bad and really, really bad components of the session,” said he would have liked to see the session end on day five.

“It would have been much less painful.”

Bonham said during the 35-day session, they had limited hearings to weigh large considerations. One of those was in regards to the situation in southern Oregon where cartels are running illegal marijuana grows. Another was the farm worker overtime pay bill, which work had being done on for more than a year and which “didn’t get enough airtime in terms of engagement in community sessions.”

Owens noted that the intent of the short session was never codified and, as such, the only way to get it back would be through a bill or an initiative petition of the people, urging citizens to stay involved.

“We can’t be your voice without hearing from you,” Owens reminded town hall attendees. “If there is a problem you want to be involved in fixing, give us a call. Let us work with you and see where it goes.”

For those uncertain of where to start, the lawmakers touted Bonham’s podcast. Mainstreet Politics with Daniel Bonham podcast is available on Apple at https://apple.co/3DaeBkM. In this podcast, the Oregon lawmaker discusses a variety of topics, including how to engage, who should engage, where to engage and the best place to begin. Those who don’t want to be involved are still encouraged to contact lawmakers. Bonham said “all it takes to draft a bill is state a problem and draft a solution.”