Friday, March 18, 2016

Your Food, Your Legislature: A Decidedly Mixed Session for Consumers

With my left arm swaddled in a brace from fingertips to elbow for a week—not serious, just a careless slip with a knife—and my typing reduced to a single finger, I decided that in order to publish a timely roundup of the month-long legislative session that ended on Mar. 3, I needed some help. The following is an edited version of the 2016 Oregon Legislative Recap published by Friends of Family Farmers.

Regulation of Genetically Engineered Seeds and Crops (HB 4122):

[This bill would] allow local restrictions on genetically engineered (GE) crops in order to protect Oregon’s non-GE farmers from the risks of contamination of their seed and other crops [field of genetically modified canola, above].

Genetically modified sugar beet and field.

After more than two years of inaction by the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Legislature to chart out state-level farmer protections, [this bill was intended] to address the need for GE regulations in the state. As a reminder, in late 2013, the Legislature "pre-empted" local restrictions (with the exception of a GE crop ban already on the ballot in Jackson County). And along with that pre-emption came promises from then-Governor Kitzhaber and many legislators that Oregon would enact state-level GE rules to protect at-risk farmers.

Despite hearing a large volume of supportive testimony from farmers, organic industry representatives and sustainable agriculture organizations in favor of allowing local regulation of GE crops, the House Committee on Consumer Protection declined to let the bill out of committee with this language in it. Instead, in response to the recent federal approval of a fast-growing genetically engineered salmon, the committee modified the bill to require labeling of GE fish sold for human consumption in Oregon. While the House passed this bill in a 32-27 vote, it died in the Senate.

Minimum Wage Increase (SB 1532)

Facing proposals to raise Oregon’s minimum wage via ballot measure this fall, the Legislature decided to pass its own minimum wage increase. In order to accommodate rural and agricultural concerns, the bill phases in wage increases more slowly than the ballot measures would have, and creates three different minimum wages in Oregon, with the highest located in urban areas.

Under the new law, the minimum wage (currently at $9.25/hour) will go up in July 2016 by $.50 to $9.75/hour inside the urban growth boundary (UGB) at the edge of Portland, and up $.25 to $9.50/hour in several "mid-sized" counties including those in the Willamette Valley, the North Coast, and Deschutes, Hood River, Jackson, and Josephine Counties, and also in 18 more remote "frontier" counties. The minimum wage rate will continue to rise gradually until 2022 when it reaches $14.75 inside the Portland UGB, $13.50 in the "mid-sized counties," and $12.50 in the more rural "frontier" counties. As a result of the bill’s passage, campaigns to pass separate ballot measures for statewide $15/hour and $13.50/hour minimum wages have now been abandoned.

In the final few days of the session, proposals to create a tax credit for farms, agricultural, and food businesses to help them adjust to the minimum wage increases were discussed. However, efforts to limit these credits to smaller farm and food businesses were opposed by groups representing large food processors and large agricultural operations and the Legislature did not act on that item. This tax credit proposal will likely be discussed again by the Legislature in 2017 and, if carefully crafted, could help smaller farms that may struggle to meet some of the wage increases.

Urban Growth Boundary Expansion Pilot Project (HB 4079)

Complaints over a lack of affordable housing in Oregon were the impetus for a land use pilot project bill passed by the legislature in February. The legislation allows the Land Conservation Development Commission (LCDC) to approve two pilot projects for expanding urban growth boundaries (UGBs) by 50 acres each if developments are for the purpose of meeting identified affordable housing needs, one in a town smaller than 25,000 people, and a second in a city larger than that. Some counties are excluded altogether including Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas, Marion, and Polk, leading some to speculate that planned UGB expansions onto farmland under this pilot could happen outside Eugene or Bend. Many fear that high value farmland will be lost as these two 50 acre pilot projects are established. Farmland protection advocates will need to remain vigilant to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Manure Digester Tax Credit (SB 1507)

In the Legislature’s final days, a tax credit bill was revealed that included the extension of controversial payments for manure digesters (left). This expensive tax credit primarily flows to the state’s largest factory-scale dairy operation, Threemile Canyon Farms, in Eastern Oregon [link for more information on this controversial factory farm]. The tax credit, paid at $5 per "wet ton" for manure converted to energy in an anaerobic digester, was set to expire at the end of 2017. Since 2013, it has paid approximately $6 million in taxpayer funds to Threemile after they built a long-promised digester to handle manure from roughly half their cows. Under the bill the legislature eventually passed, the credit was reduced to $3.50/wet ton but extended for five more years, until 2022. If the credit remains unchanged and Threemile does not expand their digester any further, this one operation will receive approximately $9 million in additional taxpayer funds in coming years.

[The opposition to] the manure digester tax credit [was] because it has very limited to negligible environmental benefits, and primarily benefits larger (including Oregon’s largest) confinement livestock operations, that have manure disposal problems not faced by smaller pasture-based producers. A tax subsidy this lucrative could even serve as a recruitment tool for new factory farms to set up shop in Oregon.

[This bill was passed on a vote of 53 ayes to 6 nays, and Gov. Kate Brown signed it into law on Mar. 10. It will take effect June 2, 2016.]

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