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Oregon’s legislative session ending without much-needed solutions to wildfire funding issues

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Sam Drevo walks by the burned foundation of his mother’s home in Gates following the 2020 Labor Day fires. (Tyler Westfall)

Three proposals to boost wildfire funding this session have died though one bill, to protect wildfire survivor settlements, is on its way to Gov. Kotek

BY:  – MARCH 7, 2024 || OREGON CAPITAL CHRONICLE

Lawmakers began the short session in February hoping to fill gaps in wildfire funding, with three bills to address landowner wildfire protection fees, home hardening, wildfire prevention and response, and survivor compensation.

But those proposals failed. Only one proposal, Senate Bill 1520, which ensures wildfire survivors do not need to pay state income tax on compensation and settlements from losses, passed the Legislature, with unanimous votes this week in the Senate and House.

Experts say the lack of more, sustained funding means the state will continue to face larger, more expensive fires without reliable funding, including the 2024 wildfire season, which is expected to begin in three to four months.

“The whole issue of funding for the fire reality that we have nowadays is still unresolved and it leaves the Oregon Department of Forestry in a financially precarious position,” said Jim Kelly, chair of the state’s Board of Forestry, which oversees the forestry department. “Even if we have a normal fire season, they’re going to be running out of money and running to the Emergency Board, which is a poor way to manage all of this.”

The proposals aimed at reducing landowner wildfire fees and finding new sources of wildfire funding from Oregon taxpayers or the timber industry and came in response to the Legislature in 2023 cutting funding to state fire agencies by 40%. The state’s general fund, which had been drawn on heavily for wildfire agency funding in recent years, had too many competing priorities, lawmakers said. The fees landowners pay for protection went up in response – for some as much as 40%.

Democratic lawmakers began the session split over whether a greater share of the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to prepare and protect the state from wildfires should come from all Oregon taxpayers or from the private property and business owners whose valuable natural resource assets receive a greater share of state protection than public land.

Higher tax, lower fees

Gov. Tina Kotek threw her weight behind one proposal, House Bill 4133, which would have increased the timber harvest tax by indexing it to inflation and reduced the per-acre wildfire protection fees paid by ranch and timber landowners, provided the Legislature figured out long-term wildfire funding by 2025.

“I recognize that the deliberations to date have not reached consensus about whether contributions of large industrial timberland owners are equitable in the context of Oregon’s overall funding system for wildfire suppression,” Kotek wrote in a letter to House and Senate leaders last week. “I understand this concern and agree that this and projected impacts to existing local fire service funding streams are legitimate issues for discussion as we work to create a comprehensive, long-term fix to our wildfire funding policies.”

The bill was scheduled for a vote on Wednesday in a Joint Ways and Means subcommittee but it was shelved instead. In an emailed statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland and co-chair of Ways and Means, said there were last minute fiscal issues with it and not enough time to address them.

The bill could have cost the Oregon Department of Forestry up to $6 million while saving industrial timberland owners money. In an investigation, the Capital Chronicle found the committee that helped develop the proposal was disproportionately made up of people working for an industry group and employees of timber companies.

Steiner and the committee came under heavy scrutiny from the public and lawmakers in the hours leading up to a scheduled vote in Ways and Means, including from Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. He emailed his peers on Tuesday, saying he would vote “no” and was concerned that it would save industrial timber landowners money at the expense of Oregon taxpayers, who have increasingly over the years paid more for wildfire prevention and protection through the general fund.

In a good year, Oregonians split the cost of wildfire funding with ranch and timberland owners via that general fund and per-acre fees the landowners pay, despite the fact that Oregon Department of Forestry protects more private forestland than public land. Privately owned industrial forestlands make up about 33% of the 16 million acres that the forestry department protects from wildfire, according to Joy Krawczyk, a public information officer with the agency. Slightly less than one quarter of the land the department protects is public land.

Ballot measures

Two bills that would have referred ballot measures to Oregonians to raise property taxes to pay for wildfire protection, or to reinstate a severance tax on the value of industrial timber harvests to pay for wildfire programs, died in House and Senate committees. The severance tax bill, sponsored by Holvey and Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, was reduced to a proposal to have the state forester study the potential of reimposing a severance tax on industrial timber landowners as is done in Washington state. That proposal was discussed in one public hearing and faced significant backlash from the timber industry.

Holvey has tried nearly every session for a decade to get his peers to consider reinstating a severance tax, which lawmakers ended in the early 1990s. Doing so has cost Oregon counties at least $3 billion in revenue in the decades that followed, according to reporting from The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica.

This session was Holvey’s last chance to get the Legislature to consider reinstating the tax. He announced he’d retire the day after the public hearing.

Golden’s bill to help communities become wildfire resilient, Senate Bill 1511, also died in Ways and Means this week, he said. It would have provided $5 million for neighborhood-level wildfire prevention and the development of a state certification program for home hardening. Instead, Golden said, he’ll ask the Emergency Board to allocate money to the state fire marshal and insurance commissioner for wildfire protection.

Alex Baumhardt  Alex Baumhardt covers education and the environment for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Before coming to Oregon, she was a national radio producer and reporter covering education for American Public Media’s documentaries and investigations unit, APM Reports. She earned a master’s degree in digital and visual media as a U.S. Fulbright scholar in Spain, and has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.

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