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.”
LA GRANDE — The future of groundwater rights and quality in Eastern Oregon was discussed by policymakers, government staff members and stakeholders at the 2023 Eastern Oregon Economic Summit on Friday, Aug. 4.
During the second day of the summit, two panels of water experts presented updates and answered audience questions about groundwater issues in the lower Columbia River Basin in Zabel Hall on Eastern Oregon University’s campus.
Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, began the first water panel — which discussed groundwater quantity in the region — by adding his personal stake as a first generation farmer in Harney County.
“I built the farm wanting to give it down to my family, my kids,” he said. “My kids will not farm groundwater in Harney County. It’s not going to happen.”
In April 2022, the Oregon Water Resources Department and the U.S. Geological Survey released a study of the groundwater resources in Harney Basin, citing that groundwater use in the lowlands was exceeding recharge by about 110,000 acre-feet/year.
There are no numbers to tell if the same is happening in the lower Umatilla Basin.
Ahead of a decision to amend Division 10, Oregon Administrative Rules on critical groundwater areas, farmers and landowners with domestic wells fear having their wells shut off.
“Fifty-two percent of the state of Oregon doesn’t have the information in order to determine if water is available or not,” Owens said. “Why is the (Oregon Water Resource Department) entering groundwater, if they don’t have the data that’s available?”
Oregon Farm Bureau Vice President of Government Legal Affairs Lauren Poor said that although she has concerns of how groundwater is being allocated in the county, the bureau wants to make sure to protect senior water rights holders — namely, farmers and ranchers.
Fourth-generation farmer Jake Madison’s family well was shut off in the 1980s when their land was deemed to be in a critical groundwater area.
“It was a life changing event for a lot of farmers in the area,” he said.
However, his family managed to survive by collecting floodwater from a creek on their land during the spring, purifying it and then “shoving” it down into engineered basalt basins under their land to be used during the summertime.
He said that now, updated technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service can help farmers with innovative solutions if their wells are shut off.
Another panel focused on the quality of groundwater in light of the Morrow County nitrate pollution issue.
The Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area is working with Gabriela Goldfarb of the Department of Environmental Quality — and who is “on loan” to Gov. Kotek’s office — and others to help the affected community.
Goldfarb said that there is scientific evidence that anywhere above 10 milligrams per liter of nitrates in drinking water can cause short-term (less than a year) health issues such as miscarriages in pregnant women or long-term ones like bladder and stomach cancers and thyroid conditions.
“We know that nitrate affects the ability of blood to carry oxygen,” she said.
Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said that DEQ Director Leah Feldon directed funds from the governor’s budget towards dedicated staffing to help with the LUBGMA and that Kotek has reaffirmed her support for the area as well.
“During the 2023 legislative session, the Governor advocated for $8 million dollars in agency budgets to be dedicated to free testing, treatment, and water delivery for residents of the LUBGWMA. The Legislature funded this request,” Kotek press secretary Anca Matica said in a statement.
According to the statement, Kotek’s goal is to offer every household in the LUBGWMA water testing, treatment and delivery (if test results are higher than 10 mg/L), by September 30th.
Goldfarb predicts that intermediate solutions and alternative sources of safe water for the area will be available to the community in about a decade.
SALEM – Democratic leaders in the Legislature have announced they’d allocate $110 million to confront Oregon’s drought and water security issues for the next two years.
It’s less than half of what the budget’s authors, Reps. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, and Mark Owens, R-Crane, had initially proposed in March. The two wanted $250 million for at least 25 proposals that would tackle dwindling groundwater supplies for agriculture, address drinking water contamination and ensure the health of critical fish and other aquatic species around the state.
The bipartisan duo are chair and vice chair of the House Committee On Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources, and Water. Helm told the Capital Chronicle $110 million is about one-third of what the state actually needs to spend on drought and water issues in the next biennium to address water emergencies and prepare for the future.
“What we really need is a fund that stretches from beyond the current biennium and bridges multiple, with a funding stream that is relatively safe,” Helm said.
The announcement of state funding for drought and water issues arrived just a day before Gov. Tina Kotek’s seventh and eighth emergency drought declarations of the year. On Friday, Kotek added Lake and Sherman counties in southern and central Oregon to a list that includes Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Harney, Jefferson and Wasco counties. Such declarations unlock additional financial and technical resources from state agencies for local water systems and for industrial and agricultural water users. Oregon has been in a “megadrought” since 2000, the state’s longest drought in 1,200 years, according to the Oregon Water Resources Department.
If approved, the $110 million investment would cover at least nine proposals to assist in local water planning strategies, fund Oregon State University to offer technical assistance to farmers to use water more efficiently and pay for studies and planning to store water in underground aquifers, according to a news release from House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego.
Many of the investments are targeted at projects where state funds can be used to bring in matching federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021.
Owens’ water policy adviser, Harmony Burright, said specifics about what all the $110 million would fund are with the Democratic leaders.
“They’re working on rolling out the details of the package,” Burright said. “Unfortunately our office likely won’t have it in advance of what is shared publicly.”
In a news release, Owens said the investment was a “critical down payment” from the state to help communities adapt to a future of increasing water scarcity.
“We live in a water-constrained environment and the water-related challenges we face will only get more intense,” he said.
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.
Ontario Community Recreation Center hearing, fixes for small school boards and farmland in focus Leslie Thompson | Argus Observer | February 19, 2023
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.
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.