SALEM — The 2019 Oregon legislative session brought a wave of rural voices to Salem, speaking out against controversial climate bills, but cap and trade was not the only issue on the minds of farmers and ranchers.
Lawmakers adopted a gross receipts tax on businesses with sales over $1 million to raise money for public schools, debated bans or restrictions on certain types of pesticides, passed contentious regulations on Portland area diesel engines and threatened but ultimately approved state funding for predator control through USDA Wildlife Services.
It all came down to producers defending their livelihoods, said Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Dillon said the Farm Bureau was successful negotiating some bills on their behalf — such as House Bill 2007, which calls for lowering diesel emissions in the Portland metro area. The bill requires truck owners to replace older engines with newer, cleaner models by 2025.
HB 2007 went through numerous changes from when it was first introduced. It now applies only to medium- and heavy-duty trucks in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. The bill also exempts farm vehicles, tractors and logging trucks.
On the other hand, Dillon said talks for House Bill 2020 — the cap and trade proposal — did not address any of their concerns over rising fuel and energy prices.
A lasting visual of the 2019 session — which wrapped up June 30 — was a series of rallies against HB 2020 outside the Capitol, as thousands of trucks and other vehicles filled the streets.
With Democrats holding a supermajority in the House and Senate, as well as a Democratic governor, Oregon was poised to become the second state after California to implement a cap-and-trade system, setting a limit on carbon emissions that gradually lowers over time.
Companies over the cap would have had to buy “allowances” for emissions, providing hundreds of millions of dollars to the state to be reinvested in “green” energy and “climate resiliency” projects.
While the bill exempted agriculture and forestry from the emissions cap, farmers nonetheless worried about increased costs. Estimates showed fuel prices would rise 22 cents per gallon in the first year alone.
What’s more, the bill would have an imperceptible impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, critics said.
Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Linn County, served on the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction. She said written comments on HB 2020 were 3-to-1 in opposition.
“Oregonians were not being listened to,” said Boshart Davis, a grass seed and hazelnut farmer in Tangent, Ore.
A handful of loggers from northwest Oregon began making their way to Salem to meet with legislators and Gov. Kate Brown. Among them was Mike Pihl, who owns a logging company west of Portland.
As word of mouth about HB 2020 spread, Pihl said the group organized rallies outside the Capitol, known as “Timber Unity.” The most recent rally on June 27 featured more than 2,000 logging trucks, tractors and vehicles.
“As far as I know, it’s been the biggest uproar in Salem in my lifetime,” Pihl said.
HB 2020 passed the House but died after Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said the bill ultimately did not have the votes needed to pass.
Boshart Davis said the Timber Unity rallies were a turning point in the conversation, putting a face to everyday Oregonians who would be impacted.
“It came at a time when it gave a thousand reasons for the senators to say this legislation is so devastating for rural Oregon that we have to walk away from this,” Boshart Davis said. “I know they did not take that lightly.”
The Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups highlighted other meaningful bills to come out of the session, including a ditch cleaning bill that allows farmers to remove up to 3,000 cubic yards of sediment per mile of drainage ditch over five years without a state fill-removal permit.
Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, said his organization was one of the main backers of the Equal Access to Roads Act granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. That bill passed on June 29 and was signed by Brown on July 2.
Immigrants make up a vast majority of the roughly 23,000 employees in Oregon’s greenhouse and nursery industry, Stone said. The goal is to allow those workers to get around their communities and arrive to and from work.
“We have a crisis in our workforce right now,” he said. “We just don’t have enough people.”
Stone said the industry was also able to push back against potentially harmful bills that would have restricted or prohibited two classes of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos, which are part of the overall pest management strategy in greenhouses.
“This is a relatively safe chemical class,” Stone said. “It actually replaced things that were far more toxic, not only to the environment but to the applicator.”
Greenhouse and nursery products make up Oregon’s largest agricultural sector by value, with nearly $950 million in 2017. About 80% of products are shipped out of state.
Jenny Dresler, with the Farm Bureau, said it is no easier today being a rural constituent in Oregon but she was encouraged to see how communities responded to potentially harmful laws with grassroots activism.
“I think it at least showed rural Oregonians coming forward and speaking up and having a voice in the process in a way that we haven’t necessarily seen,” Dresler said.