In a legislative session marked by gridlock and political bickering, Oregon House lawmakers managed to unanimously pass a bill Thursday that would help those whose property was destroyed in last year’s historic wildfires.

“When the flames subsided, we realized that approximately 4,000 homes had been destroyed,” said Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, on the House floor.

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Thousands of those homes were in small Oregon communities. Hundreds of businesses were also scorched. And while people’s homes and businesses were destroyed, their property tax bills remained intact.

Lynne Piper and her husband Vince had only owned their 17-acre property in Elkhorn a short time before it was destroyed by the 2020  Santiam fire. The family has decided to let the woods recover on their own and not log the area.

Lynne Piper and her husband Vince had only owned their 17-acre property in Elkhorn a short time before it was destroyed by the 2020 Santiam fire. The family has decided to let the woods recover on their own and not log the area.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

“How do you pay taxes on ash?” said Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford.

House Bill 2341 would directly reduce a person’s property taxes proportional to the loss, Marsh said.

“If your house was a third of your real market value, your taxes will be reduced by a third,” she said. “Simple, straightforward … this change will ensure that all property tax payers see some reduction in their property taxes after a disaster.”

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The measure now heads to the Senate.

And although the bill was prompted by the devastating wildfires that ravaged the state last year, it will be relevant for future natural disasters.

“At some point in hopefully the far distant future, the state is going to start shaking under our feet,” said Rep. David Gomberg, D-Central Coast. “And we’re going to be looking at the loss of not 3,000 homes in Oregon, but 30,000 or more homes in Oregon. And this bill is going to be there to protect all of us as we look to rebuilding and recovery.”

The bill is part of a series that lawmakers are considering this session to help those hit by the wildfires. Lawmakers also are expected to consider a bill this week to create a construction tax exemption for people who are rebuilding their homes if they were destroyed in the fires.

In the Senate on Thursday, lawmakers also approved several bills that make up the state’s budget rebalance package, and will funnel $5.2 million to communities devastated by the fires.

The budget package also includes the summer learning and child care package, which is $250 million to help students socialize and catch up on missed learning from the COVID-19 pandemic. And it carves out $18 million to create emergency, low-barrier shelters for unhoused families in Salem, Eugene, Medford, Bend, Roseburg and McMinnville.

Sen. Fred Girod, the Republican Senate leader from Lyons, lost his home in the wildfires. Several communities in his district — such as Gates, Idanha and Detroit — were nearly completely destroyed. The package will send money directly to those communities to help them rebuild basic infrastructure.

“There is a lot of politics going on this session,” Girod said in a statement.

“I am not letting it distract me from my number one focus: delivering needed relief for my community. The process of rebuilding from fire is just beginning and this money will provide the first step to help families get their lives back.”

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