This year lawmakers approved $142 million dollars for drought resilience and water security

By Tracee Tuesday | KTVZ | September 21, 2023

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.

Suicide prevention hotline for farmers, ranchers introduced in Oregon

By GEORGE PLAVEN | Capital Press | Sep 5, 2023

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.”

Local state lawmakers catch up with constituents

Ontario Community Recreation Center hearing, fixes for small school boards and farmland in focus

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.

Rezoning non-irrigated farmland fix gets ‘major pushback’

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.

Voice for choice grows

Sen. Lynn Findley, Rep. Mark Owens urge Gov. Kate Brown to ‘halt and reverse’ vaccine mandates

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.

Republican proposal to reinstate Oregon’s Promise scholarship for college students gets full vote of Education Committee

Bill to renew scholarship funding comes after Rep. Owens and Rep. Bonham’s request that Governor Brown fulfill the program’s funding for kids and families

SALEM, Ore. – In 2020, students who relied on the Oregon Promise Scholarship to pay for college lost out on these critical funds due to budget cuts. Now an amendment from Representative Mark Owens (R-Crane) would restore the promise of scholarship funding if the student requests it under certain guidelines.

The amendment follows a letter sent from Rep. Owens, Representative Daniel Bonham (R-Dalles) and Senator Lynn P. Findley (R-Vale) to the Governor, asking that Oregon keep the promise made to these kids and families by reinstating the scholarship.

In 2020, more than 2,000 students made plans based on this funding. 1,400 were listed as pending, while 1,070 were awarded the scholarship only to have it revoked. A -5 amendment would establish a special eligibility window for the 2,470 total students.

“Oregon made a promise to these students when we told them they could attend college with support,” said Rep. Owens. “When this promise was broken in 2020, it dashed the dreams of these families who were depending on the scholarship to give their child new opportunities. I’m committed to making this right, and this amendment keeps the promise we made.”

“I’m pleased that we are able to reinstate this program for young students aspiring to earn their college degree,” said Rep. Bonham. “In the summer, we called on the Governor to make good on the commitment made with the Oregon Promise Scholarship because we knew how much it meant to the families that were counting on it.”

HB 2093-5 was passed unanimously out of the House Committee on Education with bipartisan support. It now heads to Ways and Means.

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