Despite support from influential figures, Oregon bill to reduce timber taxes fails

The attempt to shift the burden of fighting forest fires from timber companies to homeowners has been unsuccessful. (Photo: Jurgenhessphotography)

Oregon state Senator Elizabeth Steiner’s push to shift the burden of wildland firefighting costs onto taxpayers gained significant power and momentum this year.

The influential timber industry, which had the potential to save millions and was a significant source of campaign cash in the state, collaborated discreetly to assist in developing Steiner’s proposal.

Republican leaders have expressed their support for the bill, while Gov. Tina Kotek, whose staff contributed to its development, has also voiced her favor for it.

However, the effort did come with some consequences. Media reports highlighted how the industry played a significant part in influencing the bill.

Steiner, a Democrat who is running for state treasurer, faced a primary challenge from fellow Democratic state senator, Jeff Golden. Golden had proposed a different bill that aimed to fund wildfire preparedness and other services by increasing taxes on logging. With Golden entering the race, the issue of their differing views on the industry could potentially become a campaign topic.

In the final moments of the Legislature, Steiner’s bill ultimately failed to pass.

When contacted by ProPublica via email, she attributed the issue to “technical difficulties” but did not provide any further details about the nature of these difficulties.

During a hearing on February 28th, Steiner expressed her acknowledgment that the bill she proposed may not be flawless. However, she emphasized that it was a significant step forward, stating, “I think it’s damn good, excuse my language, because it’s more progress than we’ve made in a really long time.” Steiner’s passion for the bill was evident in her words, highlighting her belief in the positive impact it could have.

Oregon state Senator Elizabeth Steiner played a key role in developing legislation aimed at reducing the financial burden on large timber owners for wildland firefighting costs.

The failure of the bill leaves the debate over the payment made by the timber industry for services like fire protection in Oregon unresolved. This debate has been ongoing for decades, and its detrimental effects were extensively highlighted in a 2020 investigation conducted by Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Oregonian/OregonLive, and ProPublica.

The news organizations discovered that these cuts have resulted in savings of over $3 billion for the timber industry since the 1990s. Unfortunately, this profit has come at the expense of rural communities.

According to state analyses, logging companies in the area pay less for tree cutting compared to their counterparts in Washington.

Lawmakers allocated $195 million towards readiness measures after devastating fires destroyed numerous homes in 2020. This funding aims to equip local fire departments and establish home hardening programs.

Lawmakers continue to search for a reliable source of funding to effectively prepare for and combat wildfires, as the expenses involved and the amount of land affected by fires have both increased significantly in the past decade.

During the 2024 legislative session, Steiner firmly supported her proposal to raise funds from taxpayers and homeowners. She emphasized that the increasing threat of wildfires had become a statewide issue, necessitating financial support from all Oregonians. Steiner highlighted the fact that taxpayers already contribute to the state’s firefighting capabilities, making it crucial for everyone to contribute towards addressing this pressing concern.

According to a lobbyist representing Weyerhaeuser, Oregon’s largest private forestland owner and a contributor to the creation of Steiner’s bill, the initial proposal is projected to result in a cost savings of $500,000 per year for the company.

Steiner later made a commitment to decrease the burden on taxpayers from $7 million to $3.5 million. When Golden suggested an amendment to guarantee that large timberland owners would not pay any less than their current amount, Steiner dismissed the proposal.

The spokesperson from Weyerhaeuser chose not to provide any comments regarding the company’s expectations on potential reductions in future wildfire funding proposals.

A spokesperson emphasized that wildfires are a responsibility that affects all Oregonians. They expressed a commitment to collaborating with Oregon legislators and community members to address the intricate issue of wildfire funding.

Oregon state Sen. Jeff Golden proposed an alternative bill to finance wildfire response and other essential services through increased taxes on logging activities. (Source: Kristyna Wentz-Graff/Oregon Public Broadcasting)

According to ProPublica, State Representative Mark Gamba, a fellow Democrat of Steiner, expressed his opinion that Steiner’s proposed bill would have resulted in a decrease in the payments made by the timber industry, without effectively addressing any real issues that Oregon is currently facing.

Gamba expressed concern over the alarming increase in the number of fires, which has been doubling every decade. He also highlighted the insufficient funds allocated to combat these fires. Gamba admitted to being taken aback by the magnitude of the issue that was presented to them.

During the session, Golden deviated from Steiner’s approach and proposed a voter approval for the reinstatement of logging taxes that were removed in the 1990s.

He proposed a bill that he claimed could generate up to $110 million per year to support wildfire fighting, drinking water protection, and the county services previously funded by logging taxes.

The bill faced obstacles and ultimately failed to pass. It was later amended to focus solely on conducting a study of the taxes mentioned, but it ultimately did not progress beyond the committee stage.

In a surprising turn of events, Golden and Steiner found themselves at odds over timber taxation and wildfire funding. Amidst this conflict, Golden made an unexpected announcement – he would be running against Steiner in the Democratic primary for state treasurer. However, his bid for the position was short-lived as he withdrew from the race less than two weeks later, revealing that he had a change of heart and no longer desired the job.

In a letter addressed to lawmakers on February 28, Kotek, a Democrat, recognized that there are still debates surrounding whether the timber industry is adequately contributing to the costs of wildfires. She emphasized that the extent of the industry’s contribution is a valid topic for discussion as efforts are made towards developing a comprehensive and sustainable solution to wildfire funding policies.

In an email to ProPublica, Steiner explained that her bill was designed to serve as a stepping stone towards a fair and sustainable solution for funding the system. She expressed her expectation that the next version of the proposal would incorporate more nuanced considerations.

Golden plans to persist in his efforts to propose legislation that would impose taxes on the industry in order to fund wildfire preparedness.

“It will continue to resurface in some shape or form,” he declared, “for as long as I serve in the Legislature.”

Reference Article

Avatar photo
MBS Staff
Articles: 5296

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *