Gov. Kate Brown announced Sunday that she is considering using her veto power to kill proposals championed by rural lawmakers of both parties.
Her staff said the veto threat was not political revenge but over sincere concerns about legislation passed in the 2019 Legislature.
Brown is considering axing policies to make it easier to remove and fill ground from wetlands, move forward on the retrofit of two dams in Newport and provide money to help Eastern Oregon counties plan larger urban growth boundaries.
Some of the proposed action goes against Democrats who opposed her cornerstone environmental policy that would have created a carbon pricing system. When asked if she plans to use veto power for retribution, Brown told a Politico reporter that “revenge is a dish best served cold and slowly.”
However, Brown’s spokeswoman said Monday the veto consideration is a policy move, not a political game.
Brown’s deadline to veto comes Friday, and she has to give five days notice before making the decision. Several people who support proposals Brown is looking to kill said they hope to meet with the governor and overcome her veto threat. Brown has not yet vetoed anything from the 2019 session.
House Bill 2437 would increase the amount of material commercial developers can remove from a wetland without a permit by 60 times what is now allowed, going from 50 cubic yards to 3,000. It also would increase the amount of dredged material that can be dumped in a wetland without a permit.
Brown’s announcement was cheered by environmental group WaterWatch.
Mary Anne Cooper, vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the state classifies a lot of farm land as wetlands, so to clear an agricultural ditch under current regulation, a farmer needs a permit that can be expensive and complex. Often it includes hiring an environmental consultant, and is a process that can happen every one to five years. Cooper said the state is regulating farmers under a law that’s designed for new development, not existing farms. Rather than fully exempt farms, the bill provided middle ground where the state maintains some oversight. Cooper said she believes the decision to veto the bill is based on misinformation.
It passed easily, getting two-thirds support in the Senate and House. But Brown said it goes too far, cutting out the wildlife management community.
“Collectively, these changes could have a significant impact on our wildlife populations and wetland habitats, including potentially adverse effects on our native salmon populations,” Brown’s statement said.
Cooper said the farm bureau has reached out to Brown’s office and is hoping to meet with her this week to explain the misunderstandings.
The proposal was championed by Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who was an early opponent of the environmental legislation. Johnson did not return a request for comment.
Additionally, Brown is considering vetoing money for local projects approved by the Legislature.
Brown may cut $4 million designated for the city of Newport to plan for the replacement of two dams on Big Creek. According to the Newport News Times, the city fears the dams could fail in an earthquake, shutting residents off from water and trapping some communities due to flooding.
“I intend to line-item veto this project because we need to study all of Oregon’s dams, prioritize them for repair, and develop funding mechanisms before dedicating funds and planning work on any specific dam,” Brown said in her statement.
The city wants to rebuild the dams before a breach, and estimates it would cost $60 million to $75 million. If it had all the resources, it could break ground in about two years, with construction taking another three, said Public Works Director Timothy Gross.
Gross said he’s worked for nine years to get funding for this project, and during the legislative session was in Salem a couple times per week lobbying lawmakers.
But Brown says the appropriation puts the Big Creek dams ahead of other vulnerable dams. According to the governor’s office, 72 state-controlled dams are rated as high hazard.
In her proposed budget this fall, Brown asked lawmakers to approve $2 million to study the dams and prioritize repairs. Brown’s proposal would have also created a task force to oversee the state’s assistance to local governments working to repair dams. The Legislature didn’t approve her plan.
The dams are tiered, Gross said, and hold back up to 381 million gallons of water. If the top dam fails, the bottom one goes with it. He said seepage is already a problem and it’s now a race against the clock, he said.
“If they fail before we fix them, our community is gone,” Gross said.
Further, Gross was using the $4 million to get federal matching dollars, so the cut is actually twice as deep.
Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, who represents Newport in the Senate, said he was disappointed by the governor’s announcement. He is seeking a meeting with the governor. Roblan was one of three Senate Democrats who publicly opposed Brown’s cap and trade program.
State Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast, who represents Newport in the House, said that the dams have been ranked the second- and third-highest risk dams in the state by the Oregon Water Resources Department.
Gomberg doesn’t think the governor is exacting revenge for the fate of House Bill 2020, which Gomberg supported.
"I think the governor is above that kind of retribution," Gomberg said. "This is a serious project, and delays could potentially put lives in jeopardy. I want to sit down and chat with her about that. I understand her desire to evaluate priorities, but I think it’s clear that Newport is a priority and we can begin to address it now."
Brown was not above that retribution in 2017, when she vetoed about $4 million funding for projects in former Republican Rep. Sal Esquivel’s southern Oregon district after he broke a political deal with her. Brown at the time acknowledged her act was political revenge.
Brown is also considering revoking $500,000 appropriated to the Association of Oregon Counties for urban growth boundary planning grants for Eastern Oregon counties.
The funding was tied to Senate Bill 2, which allowed for new adjustments of urban growth boundaries. The money would fund the planning of such efforts.
“We’re very, very disappointed,” said Mike Eliason, interim executive director of the association. “This is kind of another hit to rural Oregon, and we feel like this is an opportunity to support rural economies.”
In Brown’s announcement, she said the Department of Land Conservation and Development already oversees the grant process and must meet contracting standards. The current system gives the state more oversight than the association of counties would, her statement said.
The real issue, Eliason said, is the move takes money that was supposed to go directly to counties and instead filters funding for Eastern Oregon through a Portland bureaucracy that “can’t pick them out on a map.”
“None of that really squares with us,” Eliason said. The bill was sponsored by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, but Eliason said many lawmakers helped see it through.
Finally, the governor is considering stopping a $5 million transfer in fee revenue from the Oregon Medical Board to the general fund.
The $5 million makes up 55% of the board’s reserves and operates as a rainy day fund.
The result, according to Brown’s office, would be large increases in license fees to make up for the lost revenue.
“Large fee increases create barriers to practicing medicine in Oregon and foster distrust between the Board and our licensed physicians, physician assistants, and acupuncturists,” Brown’s statement said. “With reduced funds, the board may have to consider eliminating or reducing funding for the Oregon Wellness Program, an independent program promoting the health and well-being of Oregon health care professionals.”
The $5 million transfer is part of a bigger bill that moves $171 million from various accounts into the general fund as a way to balance the budget. It was sponsored by Roblan, Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford and Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay.