Reps Mark Owens, Greg Smith return to tour Barlow High

The Gresham Outlook | November 13, 2023

Once a Barlow Bruin, always a Barlow Bruin.

Two honored guests went back to their alma mater Thursday, Nov. 9, to see their old high school, meet with administrators, and chat with students. Rep Mark Owens, R-Crane, and Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, toured Barlow with Gresham-Barlow Superintendent James Hiu.

The Eastern Oregon reps are both graduates — Smith was the Class of 1987 and Owens Class of 1989.

“I want to thank Superintendent Hiu for the tour today,” Representative Owens said. “Sam Barlow High School has changed a lot since I last walked the halls. I was impressed with the remarkable Career and Technical Education programs offered to the students and how well the funds were being used.”

The pair agreed strolling the corridors evoked memories of youth and ties to their community growing up. Gresham has undergone rapid expansion since they both relocated to Eastern Oregon, but were struck by how the traditions and unity remains steadfast.

“There is often a disconnect between the East and West sides of the state,” said Representative Smith. “It was so nice to return to my roots and see that no matter where you are in Oregon, communities come together to support the education of our youth.”

Eastern Oregon Economic Summit hosts groundwater discussions

The Observer | August 7, 2023

LA GRANDE — The future of groundwater rights and quality in Eastern Oregon was discussed by policymakers, government staff members and stakeholders at the 2023 Eastern Oregon Economic Summit on Friday, Aug. 4.

During the second day of the summit, two panels of water experts presented updates and answered audience questions about groundwater issues in the lower Columbia River Basin in Zabel Hall on Eastern Oregon University’s campus.

Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, began the first water panel — which discussed groundwater quantity in the region — by adding his personal stake as a first generation farmer in Harney County.

“I built the farm wanting to give it down to my family, my kids,” he said. “My kids will not farm groundwater in Harney County. It’s not going to happen.”

In April 2022, the Oregon Water Resources Department and the U.S. Geological Survey released a study of the groundwater resources in Harney Basin, citing that groundwater use in the lowlands was exceeding recharge by about 110,000 acre-feet/year.

There are no numbers to tell if the same is happening in the lower Umatilla Basin.

Ahead of a decision to amend Division 10, Oregon Administrative Rules on critical groundwater areas, farmers and landowners with domestic wells fear having their wells shut off.

“Fifty-two percent of the state of Oregon doesn’t have the information in order to determine if water is available or not,” Owens said. “Why is the (Oregon Water Resource Department) entering groundwater, if they don’t have the data that’s available?”

Oregon Farm Bureau Vice President of Government Legal Affairs Lauren Poor said that although she has concerns of how groundwater is being allocated in the county, the bureau wants to make sure to protect senior water rights holders — namely, farmers and ranchers.

Fourth-generation farmer Jake Madison’s family well was shut off in the 1980s when their land was deemed to be in a critical groundwater area.

“It was a life changing event for a lot of farmers in the area,” he said.

However, his family managed to survive by collecting floodwater from a creek on their land during the spring, purifying it and then “shoving” it down into engineered basalt basins under their land to be used during the summertime.

He said that now, updated technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service can help farmers with innovative solutions if their wells are shut off.

Water quality

Another panel focused on the quality of groundwater in light of the Morrow County nitrate pollution issue.

The Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area is working with Gabriela Goldfarb of the Department of Environmental Quality — and who is “on loan” to Gov. Kotek’s office — and others to help the affected community.

Goldfarb said that there is scientific evidence that anywhere above 10 milligrams per liter of nitrates in drinking water can cause short-term (less than a year) health issues such as miscarriages in pregnant women or long-term ones like bladder and stomach cancers and thyroid conditions.

“We know that nitrate affects the ability of blood to carry oxygen,” she said.

Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran said that DEQ Director Leah Feldon directed funds from the governor’s budget towards dedicated staffing to help with the LUBGMA and that Kotek has reaffirmed her support for the area as well.

“During the 2023 legislative session, the Governor advocated for $8 million dollars in agency budgets to be dedicated to free testing, treatment, and water delivery for residents of the LUBGWMA. The Legislature funded this request,” Kotek press secretary Anca Matica said in a statement.

According to the statement, Kotek’s goal is to offer every household in the LUBGWMA water testing, treatment and delivery (if test results are higher than 10 mg/L), by September 30th.

Goldfarb predicts that intermediate solutions and alternative sources of safe water for the area will be available to the community in about a decade.

Funding for drought package less than half of what Owens, Helm proposed

Malheur Enterprise | May 31, 2023

SALEM – Democratic leaders in the Legislature have announced they’d allocate $110 million to confront Oregon’s drought and water security issues for the next two years.

It’s less than half of what the budget’s authors, Reps. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, and Mark Owens, R-Crane, had initially proposed in March. The two wanted $250 million for at least 25 proposals that would tackle dwindling groundwater supplies for agriculture, address drinking water contamination and ensure the health of critical fish and other aquatic species around the state.

The bipartisan duo are chair and vice chair of the House Committee On Agriculture, Land Use, Natural Resources, and Water. Helm told the Capital Chronicle $110 million is about one-third of what the state actually needs to spend on drought and water issues in the next biennium to address water emergencies and prepare for the future.

“What we really need is a fund that stretches from beyond the current biennium and bridges multiple, with a funding stream that is relatively safe,” Helm said.

The announcement of state funding for drought and water issues arrived just a day before Gov. Tina Kotek’s seventh and eighth emergency drought declarations of the year. On Friday, Kotek added Lake and Sherman counties in southern and central Oregon to a list that includes Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Harney, Jefferson and Wasco counties. Such declarations unlock additional financial and technical resources from state agencies for local water systems and for industrial and agricultural water users. Oregon has been in a “megadrought” since 2000, the state’s longest drought in 1,200 years, according to the Oregon Water Resources Department.

If approved, the $110 million investment would cover at least nine proposals to assist in local water planning strategies, fund Oregon State University to offer technical assistance to farmers to use water more efficiently and pay for studies and planning to store water in underground aquifers, according to a news release from House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego.

Many of the investments are targeted at projects where state funds can be used to bring in matching federal dollars from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress in 2021.

Owens’ water policy adviser, Harmony Burright, said specifics about what all the $110 million would fund are with the Democratic leaders.

“They’re working on rolling out the details of the package,” Burright said. “Unfortunately our office likely won’t have it in advance of what is shared publicly.”

In a news release, Owens said the investment was a “critical down payment” from the state to help communities adapt to a future of increasing water scarcity.

“We live in a water-constrained environment and the water-related challenges we face will only get more intense,” he said.

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.