Our view: Oregon, seek fix for crises of farmers, farmworkers
Farmworkers, alone, cannot put food on your table.
Neither can farm owners.
But together, they can. It's time for the Oregon Legislature to treat the systemic challenges of the farm owner and the farmworker as one problem.
Why should legislators take this on? Because they have a road map. In recent years, lawmakers took on the challenges of a statewide transportation overhaul, and a vast increase in funding for public K-12 schools. And they did both only after extensive outreach to urban, suburban and rural Oregon, to conservative, moderate and liberal communities.
First, they headed out to communities around the state to listen.
Then, they sought bipartisan solutions.
This approach works because there are fewer and fewer strictly urban and strictly rural problems in Oregon. Instead, most of our challenges require a statewide response — not a "one size fits all" approach, but an approach that takes in all facets of this economically challenging state.
Take, for example, the urban growth boundaries around Oregon's cities, beyond which urban services such as water and sewers are not allowed. Yes, the boundaries add to rising housing costs and density issues in the cities. But they were drawn to protect Oregon's farmland and forests from urban sprawl. Again: Neither an urban nor a rural issue, but both.
In 2017, the Legislature took its transportation show on the road to find out what the needs were and what solutions were possible. After which, they hammered together the most significant investment in Oregon transportation in decades.
As then-House member Cliff Bentz, an Ontario Republican — now Congressman Bentz — put it to the Pamplin Media Group at the time, Oregon had long moved past the point of considering transportation as an urban or rural problem. A traffic jam on Interstate 5 at the Rose Garden affects the trucks of the Umatilla County apple-grower trying to get her produce to the Port of Portland.
As a result, the 2017 Legislature put together a combination of gas tax increases, excise taxes on new vehicles, a 4-cent gas tax increase, a payroll tax increase, and even a flat fee on the purchase of higher-end adult bicycles. It won praise from Republicans and Democrats and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown.
The Legislature followed up on that with the Student Success Act in 2019. Again: Lawmakers headed out to small, medium and large communities to ask questions and listen — not just to school boards or teachers, but also to the business communities and students and parents.
The upshot: An aggressive plan to invest an additional $2 billion in Oregon's public K-12 schools over two years.
(Yes, then COVID-19 hit, and much of what the Student Success Act was designed to address got sidelined. But that's a topic for another day.)
This mechanism — time-consuming travel and outreach to every sector of the state, asking questions, listening, with lawmakers from both parties working together — has worked, and can work again to find a package of policies to pay farmworkers a decent wage, and to protect Oregon's small and mid-sized family farms.
We heard compelling testimony last week as the Legislature passed a bill on overtime pay for farmworkers. The truth is, life is not easy — and never has been — for the person who owns the farm and the person employed to work the farm. State Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon spoke with strong emotions about her parents, farmworkers, who often had to choose between food or health care for their children. And Rep. David Brock-Smith, R-Port Orford, talked about the razor-thin line between profit and ruin that face most small-acreage farmers in America.
We don't doubt the honest emotions behind both perspectives.
This is why a special, one-topic committee should be created during the interim period — that time between the end of the 2022 session (March 4) and the start of the 2023 session. The committee should be comprised of House and Senate members, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. That group should then set an aggressive agenda of traveling around the state — with the pandemic's omicron wave subsiding, that once again will be possible — to hear from farmworkers, farm owners, city and county leaders, the business community, the faith community, the health care community, and anyone else who has good ideas.
The transportation package of 2017 was bipartisan and ambitious. The Student Success Act of 2019 was the same.
It's time to take on the challenging crises of protecting farms and honoring farmworkers.
The Oregon Legislature can do this. They're the ones who drew the road map.
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