SALEM — A bill to ban a bridge over the Deschutes River cleared its first hurdle Thursday, despite reservations from lawmakers debating the controversial legislation.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted 8-1 to send the bill to the House floor with a “do pass” recommendation, while simultaneously referring it to the Joint Ways & Means Committee for an evaluation of its financial impact.
The action came after the committee voted in favor of an amendment that stripped the bill of language to broaden the effect of the measure to include future projects on other rivers.
An amendment to create a special panel of local and state officials, along with citizens, to hammer out a compromise was not considered. When asked about that amendment, committee chairman Brian Clem, D-Salem, said it did not have the vote on the committee to be considered.
Clem was the only lawmaker to heartily endorse the bridge ban.
“I think there are some issues of statewide significance,” Clem said. “The Deschutes River is not owned by Deschutes County. Crater Lake is not owned by that county. These are waters of the state. I would not let a county drain Crater Lake for water needs.”
Clem noted that the state already has a regulatory role in designating state wild and scenic waterways and other issues that come before bodies such as the Department of Environmental Quality or the Department of State Lands.
“Who else would decide?” Clem asked.
Clem said he was “open to be out-debated on this.”
“I think this is a good conversation to have,” Clem said. “That’s why I don’t see this as a local issue. It is a state river.”
During the debate, Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, said she would vote yes but was uncomfortable trying to solve a specific local problem in Salem.
“I hate to have a local issue not go back to local folks for decision making,” she said. “I hope we cannot make this a precedent.”
Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, then said she wanted to “echo” McLain’s comments.
Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, said he too echoed McLain’s concerns — but with a different outcome on his vote.
“I have talked to both sides of the argument,” Brock Smith said. “I am going to be a no this morning because of those reasons.”
Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay, said she would vote for the bill as “a courtesy,” a term used by lawmakers when they vote out of deference to their colleagues without taking a position on the bill.
“This bill has been challenging at best,” McKeown said. “I am sorry this is before us.”
Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, said he and Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who serve on the Joint Ways & Means Committee, plan to visit the proposed Deschutes River bridge site in order to make a better decision.
“I think this bill is vastly more complicated than meets the eye,” Witt said.
Witt said he was worried the panel was opening the floodgates on requests from locals asking the Legislature to mediate disputes.
“I don’t want to be making site visits to every place in the state of Oregon,” Witt said.
Clem left the door open for Witt to make changes in the bill in the Joint Ways & Means Committee.
“If you need to make a policy amendment down there, it won’t offend me,” Clem said.
The Joint Ways & Means Committee could either advance the bill for a House floor vote or effectively kill the bill by leaving it in the committee. Under the state constitution, the Legislature must adjourn no later than March 11.
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