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.
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.
State Rep. Mark Owens and Sen. Lynn Findley say Gov. Kate Brown’s mandates go too far, forcing teachers, health workers and public employees to choose between what should be a personal medical decision and the jobs that feed their families. Vale Fire Department, Jordan Valley School District and Harney County Health District are among the agencies speaking out against the measures.
VALE – Gov. Kate Brown’s mandate that health care and school workers get vaccinated will trigger a wave of resignations that officials say could shutter ambulance service in the Vale area, close the Jordan Valley school system, and leave the rural hospital in Burns limping along with a small staff.
That was the message delivered to Brown on Wednesday in a letter from state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and state Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, pleading with the governor to reverse her order for the vaccinations.
“The impacts these vaccination mandates will have on rural schools, health care providers and hospitals, prisons, public safety and social and public services will be severe,” the rural legislators wrote.
“We strongly request you reverse course and remove the vaccination mandates placed on our health care and education sectors and public and state employees,” they wrote.
Brown’s office said in a statement to the Enterprise Wednesday evening that “elected officials should be calling on their constituents to wear masks and get vaccinated.”
COVID-19 VACCINE: Click here to see when you are eligible — Healthy Families. Strong Communities.
Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director, said in an email: “The vast majority of Oregonians hospitalized for Covid-19 are unvaccinated. People are dying right now when we have safe, effective, and free vaccines readily available. The governor is responding to a public health crisis.”
Findley and Owens released their letters with a press statement Wednesday evening. Their move came a day after Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe wrote the governor, contesting the “alleged science” related to the pandemic and declaring that her mandates weren’t constitutional.
Meantime, Malheur County has reported an ever-climbing number of people infected with the coronavirus as the delta variant spreads unchecked. As of Wednesday morning, the hospitals in northeast Oregon had a combined total of just two beds available for patients needing intensive medical care.
But Findley and Owens backed up their dire predictions with letters and statements from public officials that were nothing short of stark.
Jess Tolman, chief of Vale Fire and Ambulance, said of the 22 people working in the service, including only three full-time employees, only six have been vaccinated against Covid.
“All other members are willing to walk and resign from their position if the vaccine mandate continues,” Tolman wrote in a letter dated Tuesday to the two legislators.
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“If this mandate continues to be enforced, we will have no choice but to close the department down,” he wrote.
He noted that the ambulance service covers 2,500 square miles of Malheur County.
“The closest additional ambulance service is located 20 miles away and they are dealing with the same issues that we are,” he said. “If our department shuts down, they would be unable to support our call volume.”
The legislators also reported on a statement from Rusty Bengoa, superintendent of the Jordan Valley School District. He said the district employs 25 people – from teachers to office administrators to bus drivers – and that “21 have stated they will not get the Covid-19 vaccine.”
He said the district would have little choice if that happened.
“There is no way that the school district can sustain that loss to personnel,” he said. “The Jordan Valley School District will have no other option but to close if this requirement stands.”
In Burns, the CEO of the Harney County Health District that operates the hospital, described a grim scenario for medical care in the area if vaccination mandates are enforced.
“I implore you to reconsider,” wrote Dan Grigg.
He said that 70 out of 192 employees expressed “high certainty” they would leave their jobs rather than get vaccinated. Another 18 are likely to leave, meaning the hospital district would be left with about half its staff.
“Losing this many employees in these departments would make it nearly impossible to provide a consistently high level of services to our community,” he wrote. “Losing this many EMS staff and nursing staff would completely shut down our ambulance service and hospital inpatient program.”
Grigg recounted how news of an effective vaccine was greeted by the medical community.
“The arrival of vaccines gave us hope that the virus would be eradicated and that we would be able to return to normal,” he said.
He said the community was “well on our way to winning the war againsat Covid-19.”
But vaccinations “plateaued” after about 40% of the Harney County adult population got the vaccine.
“Fear and mistrust began to spared,” he said. “The majority of our community and staff were not comfortable taking the risk of getting the vaccines,” he said.
He said the governor’s decision to impose vaccine mandates will not have the effect of stopping the virus she intended.
“More lives will be lost and we will see even greater pain and suffering,” he said. “That one decision to mandate vaccines has done more to put our rural health system at risk than any other threat that I have faced in my 30 years of working in hospitals.”
The legislators’ letter also noted that the president of the firefighters union in Baker City advised the local city council that up to half the professionals and nine out of 10 volunteers could be lost to the mandate.
While pressing the governor to drop the mandate, Findley and Owens also urged her to provide for “robust medical and religious exemptions” to the mandate.
They returned to their common theme during recent weeks that decisions regarding the pandemic shouldn’t be made for rural communities from Salem.
“As we anticipate the inevitable and unfortunate rise in Covid cases, we must allow local public health authorities and local leaders to make decisions to create the most appropriate plan of action in their communities,” they wrote.
They noted that they have urged their constituents “to aggressively take action to slow the spread, wear mask, social distance, seek out the facts, abide by the laws and obtain official information on the vaccine.”
They said Oregonians “need to do better, but mandated vaccines are not the answer.”
For Immediate Release
Date: June 8, 2021
Contact: Stacy Cayce
Rep Owens introduces bill to protect Oregonians’ right to privacy, ban implementation of discriminatory vaccine passports
SALEM, Ore. – On Monday, Representative Mark Owens (R-Crane) introduced House Bill 3407 to ban the implementation of vaccine passports in Oregon and protect the privacy and rights of Oregonians.
“Requiring proof of vaccinations via a vaccine passport program is wrong and it opens the door to myriad problems,” said Rep. Owens. “It’s a violation of our privacy and our freedoms, it’s discriminatory, and it shows the Governor doesn’t believe Oregonians can be trusted.”
The legislation would prevent any public body – state, local or special government body – from issuing a requirement for proof of vaccination through a vaccine passport from COVID-19 or variants of COVID-19.
“Let me be clear—this is not an argument over COVID-19 or the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s about Oregonians’ rights. I believe the choice to get a vaccine is a personal, private medical decision that should be made between an individual and their medical provider, and that Oregonians should be free to make that choice for themselves,” said Owens.
In addition, in order to prevent discriminatory actions and repercussions, it would prohibit a person or public body from being able to legally require an individual to state or document vaccine status against COVID-19 to access credit, insurance, education, facilities, medical services, housing or accommodations, travel, entry into this state, employment or purchase goods or services.
It would also prohibit these entities from being legally able to require an individual to wear a face covering if the individual does not wish to disclose vaccine status. The bill applies only to the COVID-19 vaccinations and would not change any current laws with regards to immunizations for other restrictable diseases for schools and children’s facilities.
House Bill 3407 is requested in partnership with Eastern Oregon Counties Association and would go into effect immediately upon passage. At the time of press, the legislation has 12 Chief Co-Sponsors including House and Senate members and bipartisan support in the House.
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.