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.”
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.
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.”
Two weeks into Oregon’s legislative session, Democrats are moving forward with plans to pay overtime to farmworkers, create job training programs targeted at people of color and protect school officials from being fired for following government mandates.
If Republicans instead controlled the Legislature, the past two weeks would instead have been dominated by talk of tax cuts, clipping Gov. Kate Brown’s power and giving parents more control over which school their children attend and what they learn.
Republicans have made the case that they represent large swaths of Oregon, and the inability to advance some legislation means people in those areas can be left out of legislative action. They remain a minority in the Legislature — and in voter registrations. Despite that, Republicans each session introduce legislation representing often rural and more conservative interests.
They hold 23 seats in the 60-person House and 11 in the 30-person Senate. They chair no committees but do serve as vice chairs of most.
“I think you’d see school choice options,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend and leader of the Senate GOP caucus. “I think you’d see our interest in making sure that schools stay open. I think you would see support for law enforcement as opposed to the soft-on-crime agenda that Governor Brown and the Democrats are pursuing.”
Most proposals that make it out of the Legislature are bipartisan, noncontroversial and relatively boring. So far this year, the House and Senate have voted to confirm that the state follows the same definition of “taxable income” as the federal government and extend a deadline for a report on the effect local government fees have on housing costs.
Shorter legislative sessions in even-numbered years also mean less debates over policy, because legislators have just 35 days in Salem. Many proposals that legislators and lobbyists spent months or years working died Monday because they hadn’t been advancing at a pace to meet legislative deadlines.
That includes nearly all of the nine bills Senate Republicans listed as their top legislative priorities, though Knopp said he isn’t worried. Republicans can still have their concerns addressed in the budget process, which isn’t subject to Monday’s deadline.
“Most of our agenda is the budget items that are important to our constituents and our communities,” Knopp said. “And so whether that’s law enforcement dollars or that’s dollars to thin [forests], that can all be done through the ways and means process, so, we’re not concerned at this point.”
And, he added, there are still ways to bring other proposals to the full Senate. Republicans can use procedural moves to force senators to vote on bringing their legislation up for debate. It rarely works, but it can bring attention to a proposal and create a campaign talking point.
Senate Republicans are seeking $60 million for Oregon State Police to investigate illegal marijuana farms and $50 million to pay for forest thinning. Knopp said he’s hopeful after Republicans succeeded in securing millions for drought relief and marijauna enforcement during a one-day special session in December, but he expects negotiations over the $1.5 billion the Legislature has to spend to continue for another two weeks.
If all else fails, he said, Republicans still have recourse: They can walk out, as they have at various points in each of the past three years, and bring the legislative session to a temporary or permanent halt.
“I’ve been very clear with the Democrat majority that our goal is to make sure that all Oregon voices are heard, and respected and included,” he said. “And if they’re not, I feel no constitutional obligations to stand around and allow Democrats to pass their liberal progressive agenda that our constituents don’t want.”
House Republican leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, has said her caucus will focus on budgetary issues and fixing existing laws, but has remained vague on what legislation party representatives hope to pass. She did not answer multiple calls or emails from the Capital Chronicle.
House GOP spokesman Andrew Fromm referred to a brief statement Breese-Iverson issued on Feb. 1, in which she wrote that her caucus would focus on “restoring education standards, holding state government accountable and enabling our law enforcement to do its job.
“We will push to remove roadblocks to health care access and preserve Oregon’s natural environment while protecting the way of life of communities relying on these resources,” it continued. “We will give Oregonians the freedom to recover financially from government-mandated shutdowns by fighting the state’s regulatory burdens and mandates.”
Her office didn’t answer whether legislation was introduced to accomplish those goals.
So far, House Republicans have maintained a united front against a plan to require farms to pay employees time-and-a-half after more than 40 hours of work in a week. Each day, at least one House Republican has spoken on the floor of the House about their belief that House Bill 4002 would create too great a financial burden on farmers and drive some out of business.
House Republicans have also insisted on reading many pieces of legislation aloud in their entirety, creating lengthy delays as a computer reads to a mostly empty chamber. Then-House Speaker Tina Kotek began using the robotic reading system over concerns about Covid exposure in 2021.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, is a farmer and represents a heavily agricultural area that includes Baker, Grant, Harney and Malheur counties. Along with opposing the agricultural overtime proposal, he’s pushing a $1 million increase for a state fund that reimburses farmers and ranchers for livestock lost to wolves. His House Bill 4127 received a public hearing, and the money could be added to the state budget.
Owens, who also serves on the Crane School Board, said he’s scrutinizing education measures, including one that would direct the state Education Department to mandate and provide training for new school board members. He said school board members need to understand public meetings laws and their responsibilities, but the state shouldn’t prescribe specific training.
“The bill as written is not palatable for myself or for my communities,” Owens said. “Once again, it looks like a top down approach, in order to mandate what type of educational requirements are needed. I support school boards getting mandatory training, but allow them to have a choice in how that training is going to occur.”
Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass, said she is focused on ramping up enforcement on illegal cannabis operations, which are disproportionately affecting her part of the state in southern Oregon. That includes the increased funding for Oregon State Police spearheaded by Knopp, as well as a proposal to take on water theft occurring in illegal cannabis operations that is expected to move forward Monday.
She also supports a bipartisan measure that advanced Monday to require employees of the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission to report suspected human trafficking on marijuana farms.
“There’s outright slavery and forced labor and human trafficking going on related to these drug trafficking organizations in Southern Oregon,” Morgan said.
Another of Morgan’s proposals, which is moving forward, would adjust the use of marijuana revenue to increase the share going to police and schools. Morgan said the money has been vital to funding behavioral health specialists and school resource officers in her district.
Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, said requiring school districts to post their curricula online was one of her top priorities this session. Proposals in the House and Senate to accomplish that floundered without debate.
She joined several other Republicans, and a few Democrats, in supporting proposals to exempt pharmacies from paying a new corporate activity tax that funds state education programs. Critics describe the tax as a hidden sales tax that most businesses pass on to consumers, but pharmacies don’t control drug prices and can’t charge consumers more for prescription drugs.
Because of that, Moore-Green said, the retail chain Bi-Mart closed its in-store pharmacies and several small rural pharmacies shut down.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, initially proposed a broader exemption that would also apply to diapers, baby formula and feminine hygiene products. He narrowed the focus to only prescription drugs after learning that it would take a lot of work to identify every eligible item, but he said he hopes to return in 2023 with more exemptions for personal care products.
“I’d like to have all of it, but in a short session, there’s not time,” he said.
Findley said Democrats in the House and the Senate were skeptical of the impact his proposal could have on funding for education, but he remains hopeful that they’ll adopt his proposal. Tax measures aren’t subject to the same deadline as other bills, and Findley’s was among the few Republican bills that received a hearing.
It’s harder to pass legislation from the minority party, he said, but he’s managed to do so each year. Findley said he doesn’t waste time thinking about what he would do if Republicans controlled the Legislature, but instead looks for good ideas and people who will work with him.
“It’s a waste of time to just sit around and daydream,” he said. “I don’t do that. If there’s a good piece of legislation, I’m gonna make a hard effort to try to pass it, and sometimes you make it and sometimes, you don’t.”
ONTARIO — Committee assignments for Oregon House of Representatives for the 2022 legislative session were announced on Tuesday by Paul Hove, Speaker of the House.
District 60 Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, was appointed to four House policy committees. He will serve as the vice chairman of the Agriculture, Land Use, and Water Committee; as well as a member of committees on human services, education, and environmental and natural resources.
2022 marks Owens third legislative session.
Owens was appointed to the House District 60 seat in January of 2020 to replace Lynn Findley, who was appointed to the District 30 Senate position. The shuffling of seats was necessary as then-Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Vale, decided to leave his role as an Oregon lawmaker and run for the Second District Congressional seat left open by former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.
Owens was then elected to his seat by voters in May of 2020.
House District 60 encompasses Baker, Grant, Harney and Malheur counties as well as a portion of Lake County.
The 2022 Legislature will convene on Feb. 1 and will be 35 days, as it is an even-numbered year.
JOHN DAY — State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, answered questions and talked about various topics Wednesday, Nov. 10, at the Squeeze-In Restaurant and Deck with roughly a dozen Grant County residents.
Owens summarized the bills he introduced during the legislative session, his committee assignments, weighed in on the crowded gubernatorial race and touched on the proposed River Democracy Act, sponsored by U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden.
Owens told the group that he introduced three education-based bills last session. He said each centered around school choice.
“I honestly feel that some competition even in education is good,” Owens said. Owens said while schools have good teachers and staff, sometimes a school is not a good fit for a student, and parents should have options. Owens said he would like to see a voucher system. A voucher program allows parents to receive funds to use toward the cost of private school.
According to one of the constituents, the concern around voucher programs is the overall quality of public education if students defect to private schools.Owens said he believes most families would likely keep their kids in public education. However, he said that should a district start losing students to private schools, it must figure out why kids leave.
Owens said if everybody were to receive the same amount of voucher, there might be higher private school enrollment numbers, but hopefully, public education would “step up.”
Grant County Commissioner Sam Palmer asked Owens about Senate Bill 774, which Gov. Kate Brown signed in August, suspending essential skills testing for high school graduation for the next three years. The essential skills graduation requirement was suspended during the pandemic to assist students who had a year of distance learning. However, the bill’s proponents took it beyond the pandemic.
Owens, who served as chair of his local school board, said the bill threw out the essential skills testing requirement until 2024 and formed a committee to review what type of competencies should be required.
Owens said he supported reviewing competency requirements and added that he does not support standardized testing.
According to Owens, the state should have varying high school diplomas in different areas, including career and technical education and accelerated learning.
“Not everybody’s fit for college,” Owens said, “but everybody should have the opportunity.”
Owens added that he did not vote for the bill because it did not replace the existing competency requirements with something else.
“I voted no because I thought it was a bad bill,” Owens said, “but I actually liked the premise. We need to look at education in the state of Oregon and how we can make sure every student has the opportunity to succeed.”
Looking ahead to next year’s elections, Owens said the chance of getting a moderate Republican elected governor is excellent. However, he noted that one party ruling for long periods is not good — no matter what party has a majority.
“We need to have checks and balances,” Owens said.
Owens said state Sen. Betsy Johnson, a moderate Democrat who will run for governor under no party’s banner in 2022, would be a viable candidate, noting her pro-life stance.
Owens also added that he would run for re-election to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2022.
Saying, “I’m not a political animal by nature,” Owens lamented the level of partisan polarization in politics today.
When he got to Salem, Owens said, he thought that policy would not go through a political lens. But, unfortunately, he added, the country and the state have come to the point where that is not the reality.
“We live in the best country in the world. We’re still going to live in the best country in the world two years, four years, even six years from now,” Owens said. “But get off social media and hug your family, and go talk to your neighbor.”
ONTARIO — More and more people are stepping up and voicing their opinion over people having a choice versus being mandated to get vaccinated for COVID-19 or lose their respective job. This comes on the heels of mandates for worker classes, including those who work for the state, in health care or in K-12 schools.
A protest was staged on Wednesday afternoon in front of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-in Ontario and the same group, Stand for Kids-Malheur, is planning to be back there Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. The group stated that their protests are not about being against vaccines, but about the freedom of an individual to choose whether they want that medical procedure.
About 100 people showed up at the beginning of the protest on Wednesday, with more showing up during the two-hour stretch. There were also at least two people circulating petitions on behalf of Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, who is aiming to gather as many signatures as possible through Sept. 7 to be sent with a letter to Gov. Kate Brown stating that she and other leaders are using the pandemic to enforce unconstitutional mandates, emphasizing that people should have the freedom to choose whether to get a vaccine or wear a mask, adding that individuals will have to deal with their own consequences of doing that.
While many citizens have voiced similar opinions, the Malheur County Health Department on Wednesday released a letter to news agencies which included signatures of more than 40 local health-care providers, urging people to have open and honest discussions about the risks and benefits of being vaccinated versus getting or spreading COVID. Additionally, the department is bringing back free testing and vaccination events, starting next Tuesday, and running every Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Malheur County fairgrounds.
On Thursday, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, in a news release stated they had reached out to Brown on Wednesday urging her to “halt and reverse” her recent vaccine requirements for specific worker classes, as well as add “robust medical and religions exemptions immediately.”
Those mandates could cripple the rural area, according to their release, which states that due to those mandates, a local school district may have to close, a local fire and ambulance service may lose the majority of its members, as most of the firefighters are cross-trained as emergency medical technicians.
The lawmakers said they received a letter from Jess Tolman, Fire and EMS Chief for the Vale Fire and Ambulance, who stated that 16 out of 22 members of that agency will resign from their jobs if the mandate is enforced, effectively closing their department. The agency is responsible for 2,500 square miles with some communities more than two hours apart.
“If this mandate continues to be enforced, we will have no choice but to close the department down. This will greatly impact the community that relies on us to care for time sensitive emergencies. We ask that Governor Brown lift these mandates so we can continue to provide lifesaving care here in Malheur County,” Tolman was quoted in the news release.
Additionally, Jordan Valley School Superintendent Rusty Bengoa, in the lawmakers’ release, outlined how it may displace all of the students in that school district due to forecasted staff shortages.
“Out of the 25 total school staff at the Jordan Valley School District, including teachers, para-pros, office personnel, administrators, bus drivers, and coaches, 21 have stated they will not get the Covid-19 vaccine. That is 84% of the staff in Jordan Valley. If this happens there is no way that the school district can sustain that loss to personnel. It is already extremely difficult just to replace one teacher when a position opens. The Jordan Valley School District will have no other option but to close if this requirement stands,” Bengoa said. “That will leave 65 students who live 46 miles from the closest town, which is actually in Idaho, and 70 miles from its closest Oregon neighboring town, with no access to a school.”
Owens said the debate is not about the reality or dangers of COVID or the Delta variant or the efficacy of the vaccine.
“This is about a gross overreach of authority that is legally, ethically, and morally wrong. The decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a personal and private conversation and choice between the individual and their health-care provider,” he said.
Owens contacted Oregon Legislative Counsel last week with multiple questions on how these exemptions would work if they are in fact implemented. At this time, those questions remain unanswered.
Findley, in a phone interview this morning, says they have not heard back from Brown, either.
When asked how long people might stay in their respective positions before leaving, he said he wasn’t certain.
“Nobody wants to leave,” he said.
Findley’s hope for robust exemption, he said would be that those would “accommodate the desires and beliefs and thoughts of the citizens without having to prove anything.”
In the news release, Findley said the impact to the rural area will be severe for schools, health-care providers, hospitals, prisons, public safety and social and public services.
“These mandates will result in more harm than good and will have an opposite effect than desired,” Findley said.
Outside of Malheur County, the lawmakers say that forced vaccinations will also harm health systems in Harney, Jefferson and Baker county, too. This includes the Harney County Health District, whose CEO states that the mandates will drive the workers to other organizations, other states or out of health care all together.
“That one decision to mandate vaccines has done more to put our rural health system at risk than any other threat I have faced in my 30 years of working in hospitals,” said Dan Grigg, CEO, Harney County Health District in the lawmakers’ news release.
A pharmacy technician from Jefferson County said after 36 years of working in a frontline positions, she will be forced to quite her career she loves or give up her rights.
“It’s a really scary and heartbreaking time for our state,” she said.
In Harney County, the Burns Dental Group serves about 2,500 patients on the Oregon Health Plan, and it is believed it would also close.