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.”
Committed to ‘all sides of the aisle’ Argus Observer | September 27, 2023
SALEM — Oregon Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, has been elected by his colleagues to serve as House Republican Deputy Leader. Owens has represented House District 60 in the Oregon Legislature since January 2020.
“It is an honor to have the trust of my colleagues to serve in this leadership role, and it is a responsibility I take very seriously,’ said Owens in an email on Wednesday. “There is a lot of work to do to find common ground and consensus, but I know it can be done. By working together and prioritizing strong, smart policy over partisan, divisive politics, we can move our state forward towards a better future. I am committed to working with my colleagues on all sides of the aisle and in both chambers to ensure Oregonians have a voice in their legislature.”
During the interim, Owens is serving on several committees.
Owens is an alfalfa farmer, small business owner, Crane School Board Member, and former Harney County Commissioner. House District 60 includes all of Baker, Grant, Harney, Lake and Malheur counties, and a portion of Deschutes County.
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – Nearly a quarter of the water in the Middle Deschutes is a result of Deschutes River Conservancy’s “Instream Leasing Program,” which got a financial boost in the recent legislative session. The investment addresses ongoing, extreme drought conditions.
Of the $142 million, $50 million will, in part, go toward Central Oregon’s water conservancy.
Oregon State Representatives, Ken Helm a Democrat, and Mark Owens a Republican, led the development of the drought and water security package.
Investments in Central Oregon include:
A $50 million grant in part for irrigation districts to match secured federal funding
Money will help the state’s Instream Leasing Program benefiting both farms and rivers
Instream Leasing contributes a quarter of summer flow in the Middle Deschutes downstream from Bend
Statewide, the drought package also provides funding for water data, fish screens and fish passage, plus water planning, and drought resiliency for farmers.
The money needs to be used by June, 2025. The policies that make Instream Leasing easier, should increase flows in the Middle Deschutes through Sawyer Park.
Much of the water saved through the $50 million, will be used for conservation, and will be restored instream, in the Upper Deschutes, below Wickiup in the winter.
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.
Of more than 100 bills in the House Committee on Education, legislation from Rep. Owens and Rep. Alonso León is one of only two bills related to COVID-19’s negative impact on K-12 education
SALEM, Ore. – Despite the enormous disruption COVID-19 has had on Oregon’s education system, only two bills in the House Committee on Education address the negative effects of COVID-19 on students.
Representative Mark Owens (R-Crane) and Representative Teresa Alonso León (D- Woodburn) are chief sponsors of HB 2962, which would direct a formal evaluation of students’ education needs resulting from COVID-19 closures, a step towards identifying how students can recover from gaps in learning.
“It is critical we identify and address the serious gap in education our students have experienced during the last 12 months because of COVID-19 and government-mandated stay-at-home orders,” said Rep. Owens, who also serves as a member of the Crane School Board. “There is much more we should be doing as lawmakers to address this critical issue for Oregon students, and it is great to see the bipartisan support for this proposal that will hopefully lead to others.”
“We should not be hiding from the truth that virtual learning has seriously harmed our kids’ educational development,” added House Republican Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby.) “After Oregon’s education officials announced plans to abandon standardized testing that would measure learning gaps, we need proposals like this more than ever.”
Negative academic effects from distance learning still have not been adequately measured in Oregon, and plans to do so have been delayed.
Even 2020 high school graduation rates are misleading since the Oregon Department of Education drastically altered its graduation standards. As recently as 2017, Oregon had the second-worst graduation rate in the country. The full impact of virtual learning on graduation rates is still not clear.
Miguel Cardona, the Secretary of Education selected by President Joe Biden, affirmed the need for evaluations nationwide when saying that student data obtained from standardized tests is important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed. “We have to make sure we laser-focused on addressing inequities that have existed for years. … Every bit of data helps,” added Cardona during a legislative conference.
Oregon remains the second to last state for reopened schools according to a tracker from Burbio, a website that aggregates school government, library and community event information and consists of more than 80,000 K-12 school calendars from all fifty states.
Numerous studies have been conducted which indicate a correlation between native mental health impacts for children due to closed schools:
“Beginning in April 2020 the proportion of children’s mental health-related ED visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years increased 24 percent and 31 percent respectively.” – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 13, 2020.
Additionally, most states in the country have been reopening after a variety of studies point to safe conditions that would allow willing students to attend school in-person with minimal COVID-19 risks:
The CDC guidance, under President Biden, recommends that schools can reopen with successfully implemented mitigation strategies.
“Our data indicate that schools can reopen safely if they develop and adhere to specific SARS-CoV-2 prevention policies.” – American Academy of Pediatrics, January 6, 2021.
“…we see no indication that in-person school reopenings have increased COVID-19 hospitalizations in the counties below 36-44 new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 per week. Neither the levels nor the trends change in any direction when schools open in [counties below 36-44 new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 per week], even as far as 6 weeks after schools reopened. In fact, we often see precise estimates suggesting declines in hospitalizations in these low-baseline COVID-19 counties…” – National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice (REACH), Tulane University, January 4, 2021.
HB 3350 is a second bill that addresses COVID-19’s impact on education.