Wildfire recovery, pot, COVID-19 topics at town hall meeting
During a virtual town hall meeting Tuesday, State Rep. Pam Marsh gave a recap and answered questions about this year’s Oregon Legislative session that covered topics ranging from wildfire recovery to COVID-19 to the proliferation of illegal marijuana grows.
“This was a legislative session like no other,” Marsh said during the Tuesday evening meeting. The session ended in late June.
Her district in southern Jackson County was the hardest hit by September 2020 fires that destroyed 4,000 homes across Oregon and charred a million acres.
The Almeda fire burned about 2,500 homes, primarily in Talent, Phoenix and unincorporated parts of Jackson County. Thousands of people were left homeless.
“I went up to Salem for the session with one primary mission in mind — and that was to address wildfire conditions that we experienced here in Southern Oregon,” Marsh said.
At the beginning of the session, legislators feared a massive drop-off in revenue from the unprecedented economic crash triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and safety restrictions.
But a $2.6 billion infusion of federal aid helped keep the state stable and fund legislators’ priorities.
Marsh said the Legislature put $400 million into wildfire recovery, including money for housing, food, offsetting property tax losses to local jurisdictions and rebuilding in fire-resistant, energy-efficient ways.
Legislators passed insurance reform so people whose homes are destroyed in disasters can have more than one year to rebuild. The scale of the destruction caused by the Almeda fire meant it took months just to clean up burned debris.
Other bills allow for the rebuilding of manufactured home parks and ensure fire survivors won’t have to pay property taxes on their destroyed houses, Marsh said.
The Legislature put more money toward the state fire marshal’s office and the firefighting capabilities of the Oregon Department of Forestry, and provided funding for thinning and other fuels-reduction work in forests on the edges of communities.
“If we can do anything, it is to learn from this horrible experience that we had with the Almeda fire and to change things so that people in the future — because it is likely that we will face more wildfire situations — will have the benefit of the very hard and difficult lessons that we learned here from Almeda,” she said.
Marsh said climate change is contributing to changing conditions on the ground, including increased risk from wildfires.
The Legislature passed a bill to make Oregon’s electricity come from 100% clean sources by 2040. Marsh said electricity generation represents about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, so moving to clean electricity will be a significant step.
Also on the environment front, another bill will reduce waste by pushing for less packaging for products.
As for water, Marsh said half of Oregon’s 36 counties have declared emergencies due to drought.
“We are in a prolonged drought. There’s no question we have a shortage of water,” she said.
The Legislature allocated $420 million for water and sewer system investments, including for improvements for a small water district between Phoenix and Medford, plus the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix water intertie that brings Medford Water Commission water to those communities.
On the housing front, the Legislature invested $765 million to deal with Oregon’s lack of affordable housing. Some of the initiatives include Project Turnkey to turn hotels into housing.
The Legislature allocated $350 million to provide mental health care and attract more workers into the field.
“I think probably no issue cuts across as wide a swath as mental health,” Marsh said, noting it impacts businesses, law enforcement, schools, nonprofit organizations and other parts of society.
To address the boom of hemp and marijuana grows, the Legislature set aside $3 million in grant money for law enforcement agencies dealing with illegal activity. A surge of illegal grows and related illegal activity, especially in Jackson and Josephine counties, has overwhelmed the ability of local sheriffs’ offices to keep up.
The state has created a map of legal grows to help law enforcement identify unlicensed, illegal operations, Marsh said.
Marsh noted she had hoped to hold the town hall meeting in person, but a resurgence of COVID-19 meant the meeting had to be held online.
She said Rogue Valley hospitals and intensive care units are overflowing with COVID-19 patients, most of whom are not vaccinated.
Marsh said she supports Gov. Kate Brown’s requirement that health care and education workers get vaccinated.
She urged everyone to do their part in the battle against COVID-19.
“The most important thing we need to keep our eye on right now is our kids. We need our kids in school. We need them together with other kids. We need them in the classroom. We need them where they can develop emotionally and physically in a positive way, and that means being back in school.
“If the rest of us need to step up to make sure that we are vaccinated to make sure that our communities are as safe as possible, then I think that’s our responsibility to do so,” she said.