SALEM — The Oregon Legislature convenes in the coming weeks to pick up where it left off last year. The Capital Press takes a look at proposals lawmakers will consider and what they mean to agriculture.

Overtime for farmworkers

Farm groups and labor advocates are expected to be preoccupied with agricultural overtime wages during Oregon’s month-long legislative session that begins on Feb. 1.

The prospect of eliminating the agriculture industry’s exemption from higher overtime wages got a lot of attention from lawmakers last year, but attempts to negotiate a compromise have been complicated by litigation over the issue.

A lawsuit alleges the exemption lacks an underpinning in state law and isn’t constitutional because farmworkers are excluded from “privileges” enjoyed by other employees.

It’s been an unsettling experience for farm representatives, who were negotiating in “good faith” with labor advocates who were “looking at us in the eye” while planning the legal attack, said Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of public policy for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

The overtime issue has been presented as a “racial equity agenda item,” but in reality, ending the exemption wouldn’t put more money into farmworkers’ pockets, she said. “It’s just not going to be the result because our members can’t afford to pay more wages.”

Proponents of ending the overtime exemption seem to believe farmers can just raise their prices, when they’d actually be forced to limit employee hours to contain labor costs, said Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

“Clearly, we need to use different words because they don’t understand the price-taking side of ag,” he said.

Timber compromise

Another major natural resource proposal before Oregon lawmakers will be the compromise deal between environmental groups and the timber industry, under which logging buffers near streams would be expanded.

The agreement would also restrict logging below steep slopes to prevent sediment from reaching streams and implement other changes in the forest practices law.

The “private timber accord” was negotiated with help from Gov. Kate Brown’s office. It is anticipated to receive a “rubber stamp” from lawmakers in 2022.

“This is a legislative priority and has all the ingredients to pass,” said Cooper, adding that the Oregon Farm Bureau is still studying the proposal. “I have a hard time seeing a situation where it doesn’t go forward.”

Certain aspects of the accord, such as increased regulations for beaver removal in forests, have made the Farm Bureau nervous about the implications for agriculture. “It could be a reason to adapt that policy to other lands,” said Lauren Smith, the group’s director of government affairs.

The Farm Bureau also plans to advocate for the resumption of a program under which private landowners pay an assessment to raise money for predator control by USDA’s Wildlife Services. The program was allowed to sunset during the previous legislative session after animal advocates opposed extending it.

“There doesn’t seem to be an avenue for our communities to manage predators,” Smith said.

Climate legislation

There’s likely to be action on climate legislation, if Democratic lawmakers try to enshrine an emissions reduction plan from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality in law, said Stone, of the Oregon Association of Nurseries.

“I expect there will be a bill to codify whatever the Climate Protection Plan rules say,” he said. “I’d be surprised if the majority did not try to push something through legislatively.”

Other issues

Farm groups will probably lay the groundwork for future legislative proposals by initiating discussions about real estate tax reform and water storage. County tax assessors sometimes differ in what they consider taxable real property, such as stationary equipment for greenhouses and seed cleaning, Stone said. The goal would be to make those rules uniform.

As for water supplies, a grant program created several years ago is largely focused on efficiency and hasn’t been used to develop water storage facilities, as intended, he said. “That needs to be taken down to the studs and rebuilt.”

In light of the politically charged atmosphere and the governor’s race, it’s likely that agriculture will have to fend off “just plain stupid” proposals intended to score points with certain voters, Stone said.

“I would hope it would be boring, but I fear it may not be,” he said of the session. “I just don’t want anything truly harmful to get any oxygen during a short session.”

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