The Oregon Capitol building in Salem. Photo: Chas Hundley

Oregon lawmakers during a special session on December 13 voted to pass a series of bills approving more than $400 million in spending to protect farmers, tenants and landlords, and to increase law enforcement in rural areas.

Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) said Oregonians can be proud of their legislature.

“We came together … Democrat and Republican … to send relief (and) hope to Oregonians in crisis,” he said.

Lawmakers approved the allocation of $215 million in federal and state funds to protect struggling landlords and the more than 10,000 households at immediate risk of eviction that applied for aid from Oregon Housing and Community Services (OHCS) but has yet to receive any money. Those households now will have "safe harbor" from eviction and can apply for rental assistance until 2022.

OHCS, charged with oversight of the Oregon Emergency Rental Assistance Program, stopped on Dec. 1 accepting applications so it could clear a backlog of the more than 30,000 applications it already received.

Margaret Salazer, OHCS director, on Dec. 1 told the Oregonian the agency needed additional funding for state and local rental assistance programs to help future applicants, even though OHCS expects to receive $198 million in federal funding, and that the agency likely has enough money to cover those households that already applied.

Additionally, lawmakers allocated $100 million for drought relief, including $10 million for farmworkers whose paychecks were impacted by heat, or smoke from wildfires, $12 million to assist landowners whose wells ran dry or nearly dry during the drought and $40 million for an agriculture disaster relief forgivable loan program.

Cartels taking over farmland in rural Oregon

While landlord assistance and protecting renters from eviction garnered the majority of attention from Oregon media, legislators revealed a jarring trend in both the Senate and the House: drug cartels are invading Oregon, taking over farmland, stealing water, using detrimental pesticides, and committing human rights atrocities in rural parts of the state.

Lawmakers in Senate Bill 893 approved $25 million for increased law enforcement in rural areas to combat illegal marijuana grows and other issues, including simply responding to crimes, but many legislators noted the money is nowhere near the amount needed.

Josephine and Jackson counties, especially, are seeing illegal marijuana grow operations brazen in their operations that in many cases surround family farmland, use huge water tanker trucks to steal water right out in the open, and force migrants to work, in many cases, in conditions no human should experience, legislators said.

Lawmakers provided example after example of heavily-armed cartels, not just from Mexico but also from Russia, China, and Israel, that threaten the safety and livelihood of farmers in southern Oregon.

Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) said the $25 million appropriated in SB 893 desperately is needed and she is afraid Oregon is headed in a direction where the cartels become more powerful than the police.

“The most disturbing testimony came from a farmer who is surrounded on all sides by illegal cannabis grows,” Johnson said. "(The cartel) steals his water, uses unregulated pesticides, and abuses their workers with impunity. One farmer who grows heirloom tomatoes (among other crops) who has been in business 26 years said this is his last because he fears for his family’s safety. The cartels are heavily armed, and one illegal operation had 200 workers. We need to get the word out that Oregon is not a drug pushover state.”

Senate Republican caucus leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend) said SB 893 is a “critically important bill,” and he noted that during September 2021 in Deschutes County law enforcement conducted the largest drug bust in the county’s history, seizing more than 9,000 illegal marijuana plants and nearly 3,000 pounds of processed marijuana near the town of Alfalfa, about 16 miles east of Bend, population 400. 

“(Even with that large bust), Deschutes County is not ground zero – it was just the tip of the iceberg,” Knopp said. “What is going on in southern Oregon includes human trafficking for labor with people housed in squalor conditions that are appalling. This borders on slavery, and we must do everything we can in this session, and the next and the next, to eradicate and eliminate illegal grows ... If we make it easy on (criminals) they will just consider it a cost of doing business.”

Sen. Fred Girod (R-Stayton) noted that by the end of Tom McCall’s run as Oregon’s governor (from 1967-1975) Oregon’s population was 2.2 million and there were 726 state police officers. Today, Oregon’s population is 4.5 million and there are just 454 state police.

Girod said this fact is a travesty and a real and dangerous problem.

“We have to get the number of state police up, working in coordination with the counties and federal law enforcement,” he said. “We’ve heard from the majority party that the reason for the low numbers is the state police used to be paid for out of highway funds. I'm sorry but we have enacted billions in new programs and increased others. There is no excuse for those numbers. Until you get them up you might as well send out invitation cards to the cartels to do business in Oregon.”

Sen. Akasha Lawrence Spence (D-Portland) said she spent the previous evening on a Zoom conference call talking to Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) officials about the crisis and said farmers are being encroached upon by “folks who are heavily armed." Additionally, human rights atrocities are occurring on private land.

“I’m standing today for those who can’t come to these hearings,” she said. “For those who remain voiceless, those who have been trafficked against their will, those whose children are being held while they work, and those who are living in squalor against their will and have no way of accessing resources and don’t speak (English). $25 million is a drop in the bucket. As much as we are doing the work to provide law enforcement with the tools they need to shut down illegal grows we also need to work with our counties to hold them accountable to make sure these folks have a safe place to land.”

The legislative package also included $18 million to help the approximately 1,200 people who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country last August and will arrive in Oregon by the end of February.

Additionally, a $100 million drought relief bill passed both houses and includes $10 million for farmworkers whose paychecks were impacted by heat, or smoke from wildfires, $12 million to assist landowners whose wells ran dry or nearly dry during the drought, and $40 million for an agriculture disaster relief forgivable loan program.