NEWS UPDATE FROM STATE REPRESENTATIVE DAVID GOMBERG: Housing, Fires, Elections, and Big News from the Oregon Courts

By Representative David Gomberg, House District 10

I would not be surprised if most of you missed the most significant government news of the past week.

The Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed a 2019 verdict by Linn county jurors that awarded Oregon timber counties and taxing districts $1.1 billion the counties say they are owed from lost logging revenue.

I call this significant news because the billion dollar question has staggering implications to the state budget and at the same time is central to the ongoing rural-urban debate.

In 1941, fifteen “Forest Trust Counties” donated lands to the state that had been burned or logged over. The counties receive two thirds of the annual timber sale revenues from these lands. The 2019 suit argued that the state breached a contract to “maximize timber harvests” and use the lands for “greatest permanent value”.

The ruling means the Department of Forestry and its policy setting board have the discretion to manage state forests for multiple uses including revenue and also clean water, wildlife protection and recreation.

The money would have gone to Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk, Tillamook, and Washington counties, plus local taxing districts within those counties. Counties had hoped to eventually use the verdict revenues to fund all manner of public services.

Tillamook county alone would have received $332 million — nearly $13,000 per county resident.

On the other hand, the $1.1 billion damage award comes to $238 per person in Oregon — and if upheld, it’s unclear where the state would come up with the money. The ramifications to the state’s budget could conceivably be catastrophic. The state could structure a settlement to pay it down over time. It could issue bonds, effectively borrowing the money and paying it back over time with interest. Or it could cut services that taxpayers would otherwise get.

Bottom line, had the verdict been upheld, the obligation would fall to Oregon taxpayers.

Personal income taxes are the largest source of state revenues, making up nearly 90 percent of the state general fund in the last budget cycle. So, on a per-capita basis the damage award would effectively transfer money from Oregon’s populous urban counties to their rural counterparts.

We’ve gone from a big win for counties and an impossible loss for the state, to a win for the state and ongoing problems for our counties. It’s a real pity the two were pitted against each other in the first place.

Wednesday’s ruling comes on the heels of a separate deal environmental groups and private landowners reached this year that will establish wider no-cut buffers for fish-bearing streams; new buffers for streams that were previously unprotected; new rules governing logging on steep slopes to minimize erosion; improvements to logging and forest roads; and new minimum harvest standards for small forestland owners.

That is a better, win-win example for Oregon.

The decision will be appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. You can read more here or see the entire opinion here.

The highlights of my week, if I might call them that, were a gathering with about 90 fire survivors in Otis to review recovery progress and ongoing support, and then a dinner with the Lincoln County School Board and community leaders to discuss district goals and vision. In some ways, the events were closely related.

Consistently over the past ten years, Lincoln County has reported about 20% of our students do not have a secure and predictable place to live. That’s one in five of the kids in our schools! Some are staying with friends or relatives. Some couch surf. Some live in cars or tents.

Over the past two years, we’ve suffered the pandemic, wildfires, and the highest unemployment in the state. I asked Superintendent Gray whether our student homeless counts have increased. Her response was unsettling. The 20% number is constant because so many families have simply moved away. The fires alone cost the district over 100 students. But most significantly, Lincoln County now has the highest percentage of unsheltered youth in the state.

Housing and homelessness remain a dire and daunting challenge.

At a County Commissioner candidate forum earlier in the week, the nine contenders were asked about the problem. Some talked about shelters and mental health services. Some talked about zoning that limits buildable lands and the fees that discourage development. One, asked how to end homelessness, curiously answered by voicing his support for a sleeping bag exchange.

This past session, your legislature allocated hundreds of millions for housing programs across the state. My job is to get the monies to counties; their job is to spend it well. I secured $1 million for a pilot project in Lincoln County to better coordinate public and non-profit shelter services. And I got $6.5 million for housing in Newport connected to the expansion of the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Homelessness and affordable housing are distinct but connected problems. Both are complex and will not be resolved overnight – although we do need overnight solutions for people unsheltered when the weather turns cold and wet.

I voted against legislation that allowed more tent camping in public spaces. I voted for programs to help people receive health care and find a more secure and sheltered future. With an election year upon us, you need to challenge all candidates on their responses to these core community questions.

Still on the election theme, one of my frustrations this time of year is the proliferation of candidate signs on public lands, cluttering vacant lots, or simply violating sizing rules and regulations. I’ve seen signs in state parks. I’ve seen signs in the highway right-of-way. I remember one sign between the two posts of the Medal of Honor highway sign near Toledo. And too often those signs linger on well after an election.

The Oregon Department of Transportation reports that ODOT will remove political signs posted on the state highway right-of-way. ODOT further advises that signs are prohibited on trees, utility poles, fence posts and natural features within highway right-of-way. They also are prohibited within view of a designated scenic area in Oregon. Generally, signs are limited to 12 square feet.

Of course, dealing with all this costs ODOT time and money, which means ultimately it costs you money.

When I put up signs, I place them in legal places and with permission. I challenge other campaigns to do the same and urge voters to remember when they do not. Otherwise, it seems that folks who ignore the rules tend to have an advantage over those that follow them.

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This past week marked a significant anniversary in our State Capitol. On April 25, 1935, the building burned to the ground.

It was just before 7 p.m. when Salem residents noticed smoke coming from the Oregon State Capitol. The city fire department deployed to the scene in minutes, but their equipment couldn’t reach the source of the blaze somewhere in the basement. Firefighters fought from a distance as flames engulfed walls and jumped floors. Just an hour after firefighters arrived, the iconic bronze dome topping the building crashed to the ground. Hundreds, then thousands, of residents gathered to watch as the fire burned throughout the night.

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After the 1935 fire, the federal government helped to finance rebuilding our Capitol. Construction began in 1936 and finished in 1938. Two wings were added in 1977. The result is a capitol building markedly different and much more modern than most other more traditional capitol buildings. As we speak, much of the Capitol is undergoing earthquake resilience renovations and changes which will add hearing rooms and public spaces.

In the large rotunda under the new dome, words are carved into the marble. “In the souls of its citizens will be found the likeness of the state which, if they be unjust and tyrannical, then will it reflect their vices, but if they be lovers of righteousness, confident in their liberties, so will it be clean in justice, bold in freedom.”

Remnants of the 1870s-era Capitol remain. In the late 1970s, portions of the old columns that were on the west and east porches of the building were pulled from Mill Creek and other places around Salem and returned to the grounds where they make up one of the park grounds displays.

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Parade season is starting across the district with Loyalty Days in Newport next week. I’m planning on attending the parade, the Fisherman’s Wives BBQ, and the Veterans lunch at the Senior Center.

I’ll appeared on Tillamook Today on KTIL radio this morning (you can catch the podcast here) and hopefully on KBCH radio Tuesday morning (if the station is back on the air). I’ll join the Pacific City Chamber for lunch Tuesday and the Newport Chamber is hosting a county candidate forum Wednesday. I’ll also join a workgroup to consider puppy mill legislation next year, and present the keynote address to the Professional Engineers of Oregon talking about coastal building, zoning, and resilience.

Finally, I’m also planning to bid farewell to the Oceanus as OSU retires this research vessel that has well-served the broader oceanographic community from the time it arrived in Oregon in 2012 until its final research cruise on November 21, 2021.

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Hopefully as I’m out and about, I’ll see you as well!
To get in touch with my legislative office, please e-mail