Environmentalists plan new push in Legislature
Herald and News 1/14/07
SALEM (AP) — When environmental activist Sybil Ackerman sat down for a oneon-one meeting with newly installed House Speaker Jeff Merkley, she couldn’t help but marvel at the setting.
‘‘I’ve lobbied for environmental causes for 10 years, but I’d never seen the inside of the House speaker’s office before,’’ Ackerman says of her recent get-together with Merkley.
Environmentalists contend they’ve been given the cold shoulder by Republicans who ran one or both chambers of the Legislature over the years. Now they are anticipating a new day at the State Capitol with what they call the first ‘‘pro-environment’’ Democratic majority in the House since 1990.
They plan to use their newfound access — and maybe clout — to push for an expansion of Oregon’s once-pioneering bottle deposit law and a new program to safely recycle the hundreds of thousands of old computers and other used electronic equipment piling up in people’s homes.
Also on the agenda: a renewed push for a cleanup of the Willamette River; an extension of Oregon’s pesticide use reporting program; and maybe even a ban on field burning by grass seed farmers. It’s hard to predict whether any of those things will win passage. There’s little doubt, though, that the political equation has changed since former House Speaker Karen Minnis and other Republicans were ousted from power in last November’s election.
‘‘The difference now is, people are really taking our opinions seriously. We feel like our voice matters,’’ says Ackerman, chief lobbyist for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.
Paulette Pyle, a spokeswoman for a pesticide industry group known as Oregonians for Food and Shelter, knows her side is on the outs with the new Democratic majority in the House after years of enjoying especially close ties with Minnis.
‘‘We don’t have a lot of stuff that we’re going to be putting into the hopper. We will probably be playing defense this year,’’ Pyle says.
Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli says even though Democrats regained control of the House in November and retained control of the Senate, they shouldn’t take that as a mandate from the voters to approve everything on the environmentalists’ ‘‘aggressive’’ agenda.
‘‘I hope and pray we do not see environmental warfare against Oregon’s small farms and businesses,’’ the John Day lawmaker said. ‘‘Oregonians want balance. People should try to be rational.’’
With the Legislature now controlled by his party, Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski has included in his 2007-09 budget money for improved water and air quality monitoring and enforcement. His proposal places special emphasis on testing for toxins that enter the Willamette River and other waterways.
Kulongoski made several references to the environment in his inaugural speech on the opening day of the Legislature’s 2007 session. He said Oregonians have a new opportunity to regain ‘‘our reputation as a people who honor our natural environment.’’
Kulongoski spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor says that in addition to his budget priorities, the governor is supporting other environmental initiatives, such as updating Oregon’s bottle deposit law to encourage recycling of a greater number of beverage containers.
‘‘This is a very promising legislative session,’’ Richter Taylor said. ‘‘For the first time in a long time, there is an opportunity to advance some very important environmental policies.’’
As the new speaker of the House, Merkley believes there is a lot of public support for ‘‘making our state as clean as we possibly can’’ and that House Democrats will work hard for such things as an updated bottle bill, a program to recycle old computers and a cleanup of the Willamette. Under the previous Republican-controlled House, Merkley said, the governor’s proposal to give the state Department of Environmental Quality more resources to monitor the Willamette River ‘‘would have been dead on arrival.’’
‘‘The discussion then would have been about cutting the DEQ’s staff in half,’’ the Portland Democrat said.
Field burning debate
Some of the pending bills are sure to spark vigorous debate, such as the one to ban field burning, which some Willamette Valley grass seed farmers use as a method to clear stubble and kill weeds, and which sends huge pillars of smoke into the air each summer.
The state receives hundreds of complaints about the practice each year from people, especially those suffering from asthma, despite reductions in the annual acreage burned from 320,000 acres in the 1970s to about 50,000 acres in recent years.
The grass seed industry says field burning accounts for only a tiny fraction of the state’s overall air pollution problem, and that a field burning ban would be an undue hardship on many grass seed growers, who together comprise a $500 million a year industry for Oregon.
Rep. Paul Holvey, a Eugene Democrat who is sponsoring the field burning ban, says he doesn’t know if there’s enough support to pass the bill but he expects it to at least get a full public hearing. Such a bill likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day in previous sessions run by the Republicans, Holvey said.
‘‘That is a change,’’ he said. ‘‘We will be able to at least have a discussion in a public venue about this issue.’’
Oregon first lady Mary Oberst and Gov. Ted Kulongoski paddle down the Willamette River June 4, 2005, as part of a dedication of the first leg of the Willamette River Water Trail.