'Christmas tree bill' pumps out millions to local projects
SALEM — Christmas has come to Oregon's legislators.
In one of the final steps of the 2019 Legislature, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a massive bill to deliver about $1.32 billion to projects across the state, from Clackamas to Harney counties.
One of the least controversial bills to pass this session, it was released less than a week before lawmakers went home for the year. "It's Christmas in July," said Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg.
Hayden was referring to the bill's colloquial term: the Christmas Tree bill.
It's a biennial tradition. The bill, line by line, appropriates money for projects in nearly every legislative district in the state — a catalog of political favors. It gives money to nearly 100 projects that will help local districts, plus bolsters many more statewide initiatives.
A new jail, the remodel of a historic theater, sustainability funds for a federal fish hatchery — it's all in House Bill 5050.
Some lawmakers rail against it, while others relish the opportunity to bring pork back home to constituents.
"Sometimes what you receive for Christmas is a great thing, and sometimes you are disappointed in what you did or did not get," Hayden said.
Hayden expressed some concern with the bill, but it also included $1.4 million he had been asking for to keep the Leaburg Hatchery east of Eugene in operation.
Hayden said the Christmas Tree bill acknowledges problems in rural parts of the state that go ignored. "Often these cities feel as if their voices aren't heard," he said.
While the bill received a unanimous vote in the Senate, there were four in the House: Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, and Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls.
Reschke, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, tweeted that he voted "no" on the most bills of any state representative this session: 277 times. Nearman and Post are former winners of the self-awarded honor. Post didn't return a request for comment, but bashed the bill on Twitter, referring to it as the "pork roll bill" that only works for those who play the game.
The bill funds projects of all kinds:
• $200,000 to buy 160 acres of forest alongside the Willamette National Forest Opal Creek Scenic Recreation Area.
• $1 million to the city of Salem for the Gerry Frank/Salem Rotary Ampitheatre.
• $1 million to the develop a former seafood packing plant and $1 million to improve a local theater, both in Astoria, and $2 million for a new jail in Warrenton.
Away from the cookie jar
The legislation also funds statewide projects, such as $200,000 to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for predator control, $275,000 for jail data analysis and $78,242 to process reports of police profiling.
The bill also includes money for internal auditors at the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and the Oregon Business Development Department — a problem lawmakers highlighted before the legislative session.
Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, led the budget writing committee, along with Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland. The three ran a tight ship: Rayfield said budget-writers left a larger than usual balance at the end — but some wanted to use that money for more projects.
"Every single day, people wanted you to dip into that ending fund balance," Rayfield said. "You really were, like, slapping hands away from the cookie jar. For the last two weeks, I felt that's all I was doing."
Throughout the session, budget writers get keen attention from advocates, lawmakers, and state agencies asking for certain investments in their communities.
"Everybody comes calling," Rayfield said. "Cities and counties are the number one, I would say, folks that hop on the list, where their pocketbooks are somewhat constrained by what they can do. Sometimes they're constrained by voters, but there are essential functions in that county that need to occur," such as building or renovating jails and courthouses.