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Marsh: Legislature responded to ‘crises on the ground’

State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, brought citizens up to date on issues impacting Southern Oregon, including wildfire recovery, broadband access, illegal hemp, climate change and drought, housing and homelessness, during a virtual town hall meeting Monday.

“What we did in the last two legislative sessions in 2021 and 2022, [which] was more than in any other term that I’ve been a part of, was respond to crises on the ground,” Marsh said.

During the session, which ran from Feb. 1 to March 4, Marsh served as chair of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. Marsh represents House District 5, which covers from the Applegate to the Greensprings, including Phoenix, Talent, Ashland, Jacksonville, Ruch and the southwest corner of Medford.

“This year’s short session was particularly unusual in that we had an unexpected spike in state revenues,” Marsh said. “That combined with federal money that we hadn’t yet allocated gave us an opportunity to make some very significant one-time investments in issue areas that really matter to Oregonians.”

In all, the Legislature invested about $400 million in homelessness and housing programs, $300 million in education and child care, $200 million in the Future-Ready Oregon workforce program, $100 million in rural infrastructure, and in one-time $600 payments to households that received an earned income tax credit on their 2020 tax filing.

Marsh sponsored a bill providing financial backing for school districts that experienced significant losses in student enrollment during and after 2020 wildfires, and an omnibus broadband bill. Both bills passed the short session and await the governor’s signature.

In the Phoenix-Talent School District, about 700 children lost their homes to wildfire in 2020, and 350 of them have yet to return to the district, she said. Three other school districts were also heavily affected, and all stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars “right at the most vulnerable time,” Marsh said.

The legislation sets aside $25 million to “backfill” the districts most impacted by the September 2020 wildfires and to stabilize budgets through the 2024-25 school year.

The broadband bill prepares the state for an “immense infusion” of funding coming through the federal infrastructure package, Marsh said. Oregon expects about $250 million and stands to compete for hundreds of millions more for broadband investment.

The pandemic highlighted gaps in broadband across the state, including the Applegate Valley, Marsh said.

“People who did not have technology during the pandemic missed out on work opportunities, on higher education, their children struggled to get online for K-12 schooling, they missed out on livestreamed religious services, on [YMCA] classes, on the opportunity just to communicate within their own communities,” she said.

The legislation revised Oregon Broadband Advisory Council authority to oversee the investments, prepares the state to map broadband and consider expanding the Lifeline program, and establishes a strategic investment framework, she said.

A highlight from the Environment and Natural Resources Committee was legislation defining tenants’ right to install air conditioning in rental units, granting money to landlords to set up cooling shelters in shared buildings, and allocating $5 million to the Oregon Health Authority to deploy ACs during emergencies, Marsh said.

“We finished the 2021 legislative session on a Saturday; by Sunday it was 116 degrees in Portland, and many other places across the state. Twenty-eight cities saw an incredible heat dome that eventually resulted in the documented death of nearly 100 Oregonians,” Marsh said. “No doubt the number is actually much larger because there are a lot of people who had underlying conditions that were exacerbated by the heat.”

Also passed during the short session, the Private Forest Accord widens riparian buffers around streams, protects steep slopes and develops habitat conservation plans for vulnerable and protected species, Marsh said.

Another bill allows counties that have declared an emergency around illegal hemp to ask the Department of Agriculture to suspend issuance of any new hemp permits for the next year, building on legislation passed during the December special session that allocated $25 million to law enforcement and water resource agencies to combat illegal operations, she said.

“The moratorium is only good for one year at a time for a total of two years,” Marsh said. “After that, we hope we will be enough on top of this illegal activity to be able to again expand with hemp.”

The moratorium applies to any new permits, “except that people who are in good standing and who had a hemp permit in the year ‘20 or ‘21 will be allowed to continue operating,” Marsh said.

Another bill requires certain water suppliers to maintain a year of records and provide the records to law enforcement/water resource agencies upon request. Separate legislation allocated $6 million for grants to community-based organizations “responding to humanitarian concerns” at illegal cannabis sites, according to a press release from Oregon House Democrats.

One bill placed a moratorium on licenses for legal cannabis in an effort to stabilize the market for current growers and retailers, Marsh said.

“The market is flooded,” she said. “We’re producing a lot of legal cannabis and it’s a contained market.”

“If we have legalization and we were able to export, then it’s a whole new ballgame,” she continued. “Right now within Oregon, we have a contained market and we want to put a little bit of a halt on the production of too much product.”

The most controversial issue in the short session was passage of farmworker overtime, Marsh said, adding that she expects to see continued discussion in future sessions.

In 1938, with the establishment of federal overtime, farmworkers were “left out” and have never received time-and-a-half for hours worked over 40, Marsh said. At that time, most farmworkers were Black, and today, “most of our farmworkers are brown,” she said.

“It seems very clear that they were left out of overtime because there was an opportunity to exploit them to do that out of, quite frankly, racist ideology,” Marsh said. “We also know that our farms are struggling and we are in a time of drought.”

The legislation establishes overtime pay for agricultural workers starting at 55 hours in 2023, phased down to 40 hours per week in 2027. A tiered tax credit system shares the cost burden as farmers adjust to paying overtime wages, and will also “ratchet down” over the next half-decade, Marsh said.