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Oregon missed solar opportunity

by: Courtesy photo Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) represents House District 31 and can be reached at www.leg.state.or.us/witt/ or at 503-986-1431

In spite of the recession that is plaguing our state, or maybe because of it, we are making some remarkable progress in the way we organize some of Oregon's most important responsibilities, namely education and health care. Once again we can be proud of Oregon's ability to think outside the box to try and find ways to do things in a more productive, cost-effective manner.

Nevertheless, I found cause for disappointment this week when we missed an opportunity to make some headway on the energy front and create some badly needed jobs in the process.

On Wednesday, Feb. 15, my Energy, Environment and Water Committee listened to testimony regarding HB 4078, which would authorize local governments to conditionally approve the siting of photovoltaic solar energy facilities on low-value farmland. Photovoltaic energy is on the cutting edge of the clean energy movement in Oregon, powering everything from cars to houses at a steadily declining cost to the consumer.

HB 4078 would have provided significant protections for the rural settings in which solar facilities were to be sited. This included wildlife mitigation plans and soil specifications, as well as consultation with local governments and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to make sure that there would be no detrimental effects to the environment.

In spite of extensive safeguards to both farmland and our land-use system, and passionate pleas by both building trades and ranchers, a majority of the committee chose not to move the bill to the floor, mainly because some members of the environmental community did not support it. I am left with the sinking feeling that if we cannot site solar facilities because of environmental objections, we are in serious trouble. We need jobs and we need sustainable, clean energy. This time, instead of being on the cutting edge, we missed an opportunity to provide clean, renewable energy for our citizens.

On a positive note, the Senate passed two bills on Thursday that will strengthen the foreclosure laws in our state. Despite a drop in foreclosure filings in 2011, news reports indicate that foreclosures are expected to increase in 2012 as lenders process foreclosures that had been caught in legal uncertainty. SB 1552 is based on pre-foreclosure mediation programs that are already working well in 21 other states. The bill would allow homeowners to meet with their lenders in the presence of a neutral third party before a lender can proceed with a foreclosure sale.

SB 1564 would eliminate the dual-track process in which banks are negotiating a mortgage modification while simultaneously pursuing foreclosure.

Testimony during hearings on this bill revealed a history of persistent violations and poor practices by lenders that leave homeowners feeling like they have fallen into a black hole of lost files and misinformation. Homeowners who are negotiating in good faith to modify their loans should not be blindsided with a foreclosure notification. Both SB 1552 and 1564 will now come over to the House for consideration.

The House passed another bill on Thursday that came out of my Veterans Affairs Committee. HB 4063 requires certain professional licensing agencies to accept a veteran's military training or experience as a substitute for education or required experience for licensure, certification or registration. The military training or experience must be substantially similar to what is required of all other applicants. This will open the door for many of our veterans who have not only received excellent education and training, but who have also spent years putting it into practice.

Finally, I am a co-sponsor on HB 4150 that will provide greater access to the state's Credit Enhancement Fund for more Oregon businesses. In 2011, this fund supported 63 different projects and leveraged $17.5 million in private investment across the state. With this bill, even more businesses will be able to take advantage of the program. In speaking to business people across the district, I know this opportunity will be well received. The bill passed the House and it now goes to the Senate where I hope it will see quick passage.