By Leslie Thompson | Argus Observer | February 25, 2020

ONTARIO — It’s been a busy first session for Rep. Mark Owens, R-District 60, who was appointed to his seat just before the short session started on Feb. 3 in Salem. Republicans in the Senate walked out on Monday over the cap-and-trade, and according to Owens “all options are on the table” for a repeat of a similar move by GOP lawmakers in the House. Owens, who did take part with his colleagues in the first walkout of the session on Feb. 18, sits on both the Committee on Revenue and the House Committee on Water.

“The intent of the short session is budgetary fixes and small policy tweaks,” Owens said, commenting about joining his colleagues in the decision not to show up for a scheduled floor session. “Those in the majority are trying to run a lot of large policy bills, so we showed them we have the ability to have solidarity in our pockets and avoid a quorum if we have to.”

Owens, R-Crane, was nominated to fill the seat vacated by Lynn Findley, who was appointed to the Senate District 30 seat, and was sworn in on Jan. 31 just days before the session’s Feb. 3 start. As such, he did not get the option to bring any bills forward.

However, he still feels he has been able to make a positive impact for his community with the bills he has signed on. This included being able to testify on a bill for the Eastern Oregon Economic Development Board in order to get more funding.

As far as some other issues brought before Owens and the legislators this session, the Argus caught up with Owens about how he voted on bills that impact sage grouse and cellphone users, his thoughts on sanctuary cities and counties, and his priorities for the short session, which is expected to wrap up at midnight on March 7.

Rural birds and broadband

Owens says he only had a few days to review all the bills that came forward.

One of those bills, which he supported was House Bill 4091, which moved on to the Senate last week. The bill aims to create a fund to help facilitate development while supporting conservation of sage-grouse habitat.

Saying it was a “good bill,” Owens said he appreciated that it allowed funds raised for a specific purpose to only be used for that purpose.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the House, provides for an “in-lieu fee” fund — separate from the General Fund — with interest to be earned to support efforts to restore, protect and other steps to conserve and build up the endangered bird’s habitat. This is designed to defray the costs of mitigation for impacts of development in a habitat area.

House Bill 4079 regarding funding for broadband, however, was one that Owens voted no on.

While it might come as a surprise, he said, that the representative for the most underserved district for broadband in the state voted no on a bill that would help fund $5 million for rural areas, it was the way the money would be raised that didn’t sit well with the lawmaker.

The bill proposed an additional tax for 4.1 million wireless customers in Oregon, he said, by bumping up a 1.6% surcharge.

Emphasizing that he didn’t believe an extra tax “would be fair to those people,” Owens said he’s supportive of broadband in rural areas, but he believes there is money in the General Fund to be used as a match for that funding.

There is “plenty of revenue” to do so, he said.

Sanctuary cities and counties

As usual, gun rights have surfaced in this session. A bill this year would make a gun owner responsible for damages if their firearm was stolen and used for a crime.

“I’m supportive of rural counties in eastern Oregon standing up for what we believe, even only if it’s just posturing,” Owens said regarding municipalities and counties taking extra measures to protect the Second Amendment.

The Nyssa City Council in its last regular meeting voted on enacting protections over gun rights, and Malheur County did the same in 2015.

Attempts elsewhere in District 60 to do the same have not got off the ground in Harney County, but have in Baker County.

Saying he was supportive of those who do take the extra steps, he reasoned why:

“We are showing the state we will no longer take continued erosion of our Constitutional rights,” he said, adding he was unsure whether doing so was actually enforceable or not.

Owens’ priorities

Although it’s a short session and Owens is serving for the first time as a legislator he does have three priorities for the session. The first is to hear from constituents and “be a voice of our people.” The second, he says, is to learn the process in order to be effective in a longer session, as he has filed for the seat he is now filling for the Primary Election in May.

He already had been planning to file for the seat, he said, but when finding out about the shuffling of seats which began when former Sen. Cliff Bentz announced his bid for Congress, he waited. It wasn’t until after Findley, who had also been aiming to get elected to the House District 60 seat, pulled his file, that Owens filed.

Serving on the Harney County Commission, Owens said, gave him a good head start for a role as a state leader.

“It also taught me the closest form of government to the people. It taught me to build relationships and to be their voice,” he said. “I want to continue that in Salem and in all five counties I represent.”

Owens’ third priority in Salem, is in line with that: building relationships.

“As the super minority, we will have to work together to move forward.”