By Ian Crawford | Baker City Herald | September 27, 2023

Baker County’s two state legislators — Sen. Lynn Findley and Rep. Mark Owens — met with local residents during a town hall Monday afternoon, Sept. 25 at the OTEC office in Baker City.

Findley, a Republican from Vale, talked about the legislative session that ended in June.

“I’m happy to say that, in the six sessions I’ve been in the legislature, this was the most contentious,” Findley said. “We took the supermajority away so they couldn’t pass tax increases, but they made a run at everything else you can think of.”

Democrats were one position short of a supermajority in both the Senate and the House.

Findley, who has represented Baker County since 2020, also talked about the decision he and several other Republican senators made to stay away from the Capitol late in the session to deprive the Democrats of a quorum to conduct business.

Oregon voters passed Measure 113 in the November 2022 election which states that legislators who accrue 10 or more unexcused absences are not eligible to run for reelection in the next election.

Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade concluded that the senators, including Findley, are prohibited from seeking another term due to Measure 113.

Findley and four other senators have challenged Griffin-Valade’s decision in court, and the matter is pending.

“When I denied quorum, I knew very well that Measure 113 as it went through at the last general election said if you deny quorum over 10 times you’re ineligible to run for the next time,” Findley said. “Well, my oath of office is more important to me than being a state senator.”

Findley told the Baker City audience Monday that he participated in the walkout because many bills failed to meet a readability score, equivalent to an eighth grade reading level, as required by an obscure state law.

“When I was made aware of that we said ‘well, let’s find out what these measures add up to,’” Findley said.

He said five bills failed the test.

“Me and five of my colleagues said that’s not good enough, the law says it’s supposed to be readable, they’re gonna be readable or we’re not going to listen to them,” Findley said. “So we denied quorum for 53 days, just because all they had to do was fix the readability scale. I didn’t like the bills, I was always going to vote against the bills, and I did.”

Owens, a Republican from Crane, said during Monday’s town hall that “denying quorum isn’t a strategy, it’s a tactic, that tactic gets you into the conversation in order to modify the bills that come in, so I’m thankful senator Findley did that.”

Republicans in the House didn’t participate in the walkout.

Ultimately, Findley said Republicans negotiated changes to a controversial bill, House Bill 2002, that protects providers who perform abortions or gender-affirming health care from prosecution or civil liability, and to House Bill 2005, which adopts the federal definition of so-called ghost guns made with untraceable parts.

Findley also touted his work on Senate Bill 498, which doubled property inheritance exemptions and is intended to make it easier for family farms and ranches to remain in family ownership. The bill allows up to $15 million of farm, fishing and forest property to be excluded from the value of estates that pay the estate tax. Findley also promoted Senate Bill 955, which is intended to reduce the rate of rural suicide, particularly among farmers and ranchers.

He and Owens also expressed support for state school funding, which was increased for the current biennium.

“Fully funded education to the tune of 10.3 billion dollars, huge amount of money,” Owens said. “That’s good, one thing with education, in my mind, is we got to figure out how to make education better in Oregon, figure out how to get a little competition in education.”

Findley and Owens told the Baker City audience that they will resist efforts to divert money from Oregon’s income tax “kicker” refunds away from taxpayers.

Hearing from citizens

People attending Monday’s town hall posed several questions to Findley and Owens.

Interest in trains took two angles, with the first discussion revolving around the quiet zone projects and a parent expressing concern about harm to young children due the noise from horns.

A local group has sought to get a quiet zone designated in Baker City, in which freight trains, about 24 per day, would sound their horns only in emergencies at the discretion of the engineer and conductor.

Findley said he applauded the efforts, but noted that the process is through the Federal Railroad Administration.

In terms of potentially returning passenger rail service to Baker County for the first time since 1997, Findley said he supports those efforts.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality was discussed at some length, and in particular the agency’s current project to write a plan designed to reduce the amount of E. coli bacteria in streams in the Powder Basin, which encompasses most of Baker County.

Local residents, including Doni Bruland, the county’s natural resources director, have contested the DEQ’s claim that farms and ranches are responsible for 90% of the bacteria.

Findley and Owens said they’ve meet with the DEQ director recently regarding the local concerns about the project, known as Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

Owens noted that 13 state agencies deal with water issues.

“We’ve been working to get them to coordinate there among themselves at the state level.”

In response to concerns about highway maintenance, including snowplowing and painting fog lines, Findley, who is a member of the legislature’s transportation committee, said some of the work the state promised through a funding bill in 2017 hasn’t happened.

A new bill is being proposed for 2025, he said.

“I will tell you the theme of that one’s going to be, how do we keep the lights on at ODOT,” Findley said.

The lawmakers also discussed the controversial fire risk maps the Oregon Department of Forestry released in the summer of 2022, then withdrew after complaints that the maps were inaccurate.

Findley said the next draft of the map is due in about two weeks.

“They drew lines out there that should never have been drawn,” Findley said. “We need that map, in the urban interface to assess wildfire risk, to allocate resources appropriately. We need that tool, what they gave us is not that tool.”