Do What You Can Do 4/2/2021

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Senator Jeff Golden

 *  “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”  
—Helen Keller

Screenshot of Senator Golden's online town hall 4/1/2021

I enjoyed last night’s Town Hall meeting. I had the chance both to tell current legislative adventure tales and hear concerns and insights from engaged District 3 folks. You can watch it here.

Wildfire and forest bills

This week the Governor’s Office and my Natural Resources Committee reconciled our two omnibus wildfire bills into one, SB 762. We’ll hold hearings on it next week, aiming to pass it onto the Senate Floor the week after that. I’ll post the finished draft for you soon.

The toughest piece has been balancing the need to bring a big set of stakeholders and interest groups on board for new zoning, building code and defensible space regulations, and the need to move fast. In the decade since catastrophic megafires have become nearly annual events, a lot of committees have met, a lot of plans have been discussed, some impressive reports have been published. What we haven’t done is implement changes on the ground to make our communities safer from wildfire, and to lessen the severity when they hit.

Too much time has passed with too little improvement. I’ve been negotiating with interest groups who are nervous about regulations to come, inviting their ideas for getting the key players moving in the same direction much faster than that usually happens. We won’t come close to making everyone content with this bill; the task is managing the discontent down to a level that draws an Aye from most lawmakers. I believe we can do that.

Forest photo

Photo from ODOT

SB 335 and 337, my bills to change the governance of the Department of Forestry, are done for the session. I withdrew them because concern was growing that they might somehow tangle up an ongoing and historic mediation process between the timber industry and environmental groups, trying to work out solutions to Oregon’s 30-year-old battles. I don’t really buy that the mediation and this legislation couldn’t proceed at the same time, but I’m not willing to provide any noise or distraction that might reduce chances for the mediation to break through the old impasses. I hope they take on the problem I was addressing with these bills; if they can agree, their solution will probably be better than anything we could legislate.

If they don’t, I’ll be back next session with a new bill. The question is this: is Oregon well served when the governing boards of its natural resources regulatory agencies have so many representatives from the industries they regulate? It’s a question I’m glad to have put on the table, and I’ll come back to it again.

Photo of Malheur County

Malheur County (Photo from the Oregon State Archives)

A close call on land use

My ‘yes’ vote yesterday, Thursday, on SB 16 was unusual in a couple of respects. One is that I voted differently after hearing the floor debate than I thought I would going in; that’s rarer in the legislature than it probably should be.

More importantly, it ran straight up against a high-energy campaign by the Oregon Conservation Network (OCN), a group I almost always align with. Some of you might have sent me their form email describing how the bill “threatens our innovative land use system and would irrevocably harm the Eastern Oregon border region.”

Having wrestled with this system since I had to judge rural land-use disputes as a Jackson County Commissioner in the late 1980s, when arguments on rural regulations came close to violence, I just can’t agree. This bill came from the painstaking work of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board, created in 2017 to address the particular challenges in and around Ontario, on the Snake River just across from Idaho and 57 miles from Boise. Idaho doesn’t regulate much of anything, which undercuts Malheur County’s job creation, residential development and property tax base in a big way. Under current conditions, there’s just not much to work with there that offers people a shot at a marginally comfortable life. 

Malheur County

This bill allows up to 200 acres currently zoned as resource land to be used to build up to 100 homes. They’ll be developed along existing roads to curb further sprawl and leave ranching operations undisturbed, on poor-quality soils, and under rules that won’t let homeowners challenge agricultural operations. It lets the farthest razor-thin edge of Oregon deviate from rules that govern the rest of the state to allow an infusion of economic energy, which, since the steep decline of logging and ranching, has been in short supply.

What I decided on the floor in the midst of the debate was that the risk— hurting Oregon’s resource land base, or, more to the point, allowing a camel’s nose under the tent in a way we’d regret—is smaller than the benefit of letting this remote sliver of the state follow its own, carefully circumscribed course to fortify its future. I agree with OCN about the great value of our land-use system, but not with their assessment of what this particular bill might do to it. And yes, I do look for ways to give Eastern Oregon a break.

Another vote I had to ponder...

... was SB 398, which passed the Senate Floor yesterday 27-1. It might not be the kind of bill that should cause hesitation. For me it did.

SB 398 creates a Class A misdemeanor for displaying a noose in a way intended to intimidate or scare others, a sadly timely measure these days. What slowed me down was a sense that’s grown in recent years that we’re not guarding freedom of expression as carefully as we should.

I’m something like a fundamentalist when it comes to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. A classic yardstick in this issue was the 1977 battle over whether a swastika-brandishing group of self-described Nazis should be permitted to parade through the largely Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois.  I thought they should, which wasn’t a big hit within my Jewish family. Supporting their right to demonstrate, I thought then and still do, would authenticate a robust and confident belief in the First Amendment, which really isn’t necessary for expression that’s within a certain range of social acceptability. We have it, and have to strive to maintain it, for obnoxious, offensive, ugly, perhaps marginally frightening speech.

I’ve been concerned that as a nation we’re losing our commitment to that principle, that more and more of us are unwilling to protect speech that we find offensive. That road, history has shown more than once, leads to bad places. And that was my first thought as debate began on this bill floor.

Then what came to mind was the daily reality of brutal violence in America, both clearly threatened and acted out, against people of color. It has extended from the arrival of European ships four centuries ago to the very moment I sat there on the Senate floor. A noose killed some of those people, and nooses have been used to terrorize many more.  It happens today.

It’s way past time—however much the First Amendment might be wobbling these days—to do everything we reasonably can to turn back that tide. An unyielding “no” to hateful displays of a noose fits in that category.  So much so that it wasn’t a hard vote in the end. Here’s how Democrats announced the outcome.

Home with a "For Sale" sign

Paring back the mortgage interest tax break

What’s the biggest way Oregon taxpayers subsidize housing? It’s the tax deduction property owners take on the interest paid on their mortgages, which amounts to around $600 million every two years. About 60% of that benefit goes to the one-fifth of Oregonians with the highest incomes. What kind of dent could that make in our state’s affordable housing crisis if it were channeled towards projects for lower-income Oregonians? A big one.

That’s the reasoning behind SB 852, which we heard yesterday in Senate Housing. It would end these deductions for homes other than the one that the taxpayer lives in (though that interest could still be deducted as a business expense for homes that are rented out), and start to reduce the deduction on the primary home for a taxpayer with an adjusted gross income over $200,000. Those earning more than $250,000 in taxable income would get no deduction. And for all of this, the deduction on federal tax returns remains unchanged.

Proposals like this have been introduced for years. I remember a 2019 visit, way back when people actually came into the Capitol to lobby, from a delegation of realtors to demand that I take my name off a similar bill. They couldn’t imagine why anyone would possibly support the idea. Didn’t I believe in encouraging home ownership? I do, I told them, and that’s why I support this bill. I thought it offered a chance for many more Oregonians of modest means to become homeowners, and wasn’t likely to block the way for people making over $250,000.

What I most remember is their astonishment. It was as if this provision had been brought down from Mt. Sinai on a stone tablet, instead of added to the tax code in very different economic times to stimulate home buying. Changing it would be like changing the laws of gravity. One of the many emails I received ended with this: “Even though I am nowhere near the tax bracket that will be affected by this bill, I am adamantly opposed to Oregon, once again, trying to take what I have rightfully earned!”  Really?

Almost all the other dozens of emails were form letters spurred by an appeal from some statewide group. They all got my form email in return.

So no boredom this past week. And next week the schedule changes. Instead of half the work week in Salem and half at home in the Valley (and I admit that taking all those committee meetings in my home office has mostly been a treat), I’ll be at the Capitol Mondays through Thursdays. But it only lasts until adjournment at the end of June, and there’s a lot of intense work to get done.

It’s a privilege to have the chance to do it.  Take care—

Jeff (Signature)

Senator Jeff Golden, Oregon Senate District 3

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COVID-19 resources

How do I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

  1. Check if you're eligible here.

  2. If you are eligible, go to the Jackson County COVID-19 vaccine page for contact information to schedule your appointment.

  3. If you would prefer to have assistance scheduling your appointment, the Aging and Disabilities Resource Connection (ADRC) is available to help seniors navigate the process and access the COVID-19 vaccine in Jackson and Josephine Counties. Call ADRC at 541-618-7572. 

  4. Looking for more information? Check out the Oregon Health Authority's COVID-19 page.

Wildfire resources

Capitol Phone: 503-986-1703
Capitol Address: 900 Court St NE, S-421, Salem, OR, 97301 
Podcast: Capitolizing