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.”
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.”
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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.”