If legislators approve the funding, the money will help rural areas around the state but they’re not likely to see any cash for at least two months

| December 13, 2021| Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon lawmakers on Monday will consider a disaster relief package of nearly $100 million to help Oregon farmers, ranchers and irrigation districts recover from two years of wildfires, ice, excessive heat and drought.

The Oregon Legislature convenes in what is expected to be a one-day session originally set to consider increasing rent relief.

But Gov. Kate Brown and Senate Republicans struck a late deal to move aid out to the state’s agriculture industry. The package includes:

  • $40 million for forgivable loans for producers and irrigators.
  • $12 million to the Klamath Basin for wells and irrigation and drought relief.
  • $10 million for farmworkers who missed work because of extreme heat or smoke.
  • $9.8 for irrigation districts to offset costs.
  • $9.7 million for drought relief for Klamath Tribes;
  • $6 million for deeper wells and the expense of hauling in water.
  • $5 million for cricket and grasshopper eradication.

State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, who represents Malheur, Harney, Grant, Baker, Wheeler and Jefferson counties, said he was alerted by farmers and ranchers in his district last spring that they were facing economic hardships caused by wildfires, the pandemic and drought.

“They were quite stressed that they would not be able to remain economically viable, both the irrigation districts and the farmers associated with that,” Findley told the Capital Chronicle.

In June, a heat dome hit Oregon, decimating berry and cherry crops and causing widespread damage to Christmas trees and seed growers. In early July, Findley started pushing the governor’s office for a meeting of the legislative Emergency Board, which had $150 million on hand for disaster relief.

Farm, cattle and water groups also weighed in, calling for relief across the state.

In October, nearly 20 advocates and associations such as the Oregon Farm Bureau, the Association of Oregon Counties, the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, the Oregon Association of Nurseries and the Oregon Water Resources Congress appealed to Senate and House leaders and members of the Emergency Board for relief.

“For Oregon’s family farms and ranches to recover for the next growing season, the Legislature must act now to provide assistance where the federal programs fall short,” the group letter said. “The Oregon agricultural community has endured multiple ‘once-in-a-generation’ challenges in the last year that individually are tough but cumulatively are threatening.”

Findley agreed that the need is urgent. Producers in his district only received about a quarter of their irrigation water allotment this year, with supplies cut off in August. At the same time, producers saw the cost of equipment and fertilizer triple or more.

“This will help them because they didn’t they didn’t get much of a paycheck this year,” Findley said. “They got coal in their stocking instead of money.”

House Republicans said they, too, support the farm aid, though they wanted the package to be approved by the Emergency Board. Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford and leader of the House Republican caucus, blasted Brown and legislative leaders for holding Monday’s special session.

“Extending the eviction moratorium is unnecessary and disruptive,” Brock Smith said in a release Friday. “Contrary to the governor’s recent maskless escapades back East, she’s currently directing her agencies to draft permanent mask rules. Oregonians are ready to move forward, get back to work and grow our economies.”

Andrew Fromm, the House Republican caucus spokesman, said Democratic leaders didn’t invite Brock Smith to the special session negotiations, something the Democrats deny.

The negotiations started in October. Initially, the farming and cattle associations asked for $50 million, and Findley asked for $17.7 million for Jefferson County. The amounts kept being “rounded up,” Findley said.

He ultimately snagged $15.5 million for Jefferson County

Aside from the conflict over the special session, the negotiations on the drought relief package were not cantankerous, Findley said.

“It was a statewide effort,” Findley said. “It was bipartisan. Everyone sat around the table and agreed to it.”

If the money is approved, it will not get to producers and irrigators quickly, however.

If the package is approved during the special session on Monday, it goes to the governor’s office. She has 30 days to sign it. Then rules have to be written.

“This is not a fast process,” Findley said. “It could be 60 or 90 days before the money could be rolled out.”

That’s another reason why it needs to be approved now, he said.

“This should have been done 60 days ago,” Findley said.