Accusations of stalling, supporting corporate interest and yielding to big tobacco ended today's town hall hosted by republicans, Sen. Tim Knopp and State Rep. Gene Whisnant. The hour-long Bend session, started off rather uneventfully as Sen. Knopp illustrated his involvement in attempting to solve the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) crisis. "We need to do something," he said as pointed to three large graphs that illustrated the $22 billion PERS deficit. “I'm trying."
Whisnant and Knopp touched on the Oregon state legislature's 1.8 billion dollar budget deficit with Whisnant stating "Most of that was from one-time mismanagement of your funds." Both Senators came short of saying they were completely against raising taxes to cover the deficit or instilling any new long-term solutions since they deemed the shortfall to be caused by one-off situations — not by a shortage of revenue stream.
Knopp said, "If you're going to raise revenue, you gotta have a sustainable spending plan to make sure you're not going to keep raising taxes, raising taxes, raising taxes. There are also those that want to raise corporate taxes, but we need to address the structural issues that are getting out of control. Solving structural problems."
He also warned "Raises in taxes, will cause people to leave the area."
The state of our roads were a hot button topic, with constituents pressing for movement on the matter after a particularly long and hard winter. Whisnant said "We're ready to negotiate," acknowledging the need for bipartisan support to support Oregon's ailing infrastructure. Knopp agreed, touting the economy as a reason to better our roads.
Both republicans said they had tried working on a transportation package but had faced obstacles. Knopp commented that the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) needed a significant boost to their gas tax in order to pave and maintain roads. He mentioned Bend voting against a gas tax last year. He said "Without adding any new projects, they [ODOT] need a 41 cents a gallon [increase]. For all the projects people want it's $1 a gallon. And what they are trying to get the package to is 11 cents a gallon. So my question to you is: would you vote for any of those for a transportation package?" A murmur of quiet agreement came from the crowd.
Previously, Whisnant had commentated on the inefficiency of the gas-tax model citing the increase of electric and hybrid vehicles. "They pay less for gas taxes because they are more efficient," he said — noting that these newer vehicles still use the same infrastructure but are paying less into the system due to their efficiency. Members of the crowd were visibly confused as he explained his thought process which he acknowledged could get him in trouble if not explained correctly. "They are putting the same weight [on the system]," he said. "So the systems all screwed up now because it's reliant on a gas tax model."
The crowd went back on forth, touching again on PERS, the minimum wage and the bonding package for OSU-Cascades. Things then became heated when Penny, a Bend resident asked what both men would do regarding tobacco in Deschutes county being still the leading cause of death. She asked if both men supported the the proposed Tobacco 21 law — which would raise the minimum age of selling Tobacco to 21.
She commented: "In 2016, 50 percent of 11th graders in Deschutes County report getting tobacco from a friend 18 or over... What's your plan to address these issues, to restrict tobacco use, especially E-cigarettes?”
Knopp refuted the claim stating that it was his belief that kids mostly smoked because their parents smoked. He noted the ease of accessibility to cigarettes if a parent smoked in the house. Penny however countered by stating that his beliefs went against proven data. “In fact,” she said, “in the past five years, Oregon has the highest rate of retailers selling to minors...Deschutes County is spending approximately 50 million per year to counter tobacco related health issues."
When Knopp said that he didn't really have any "particular plans or thoughts" regarding the matter, Penny asked,
"Is this because you take money from big tobacco?"
The conversation quickly sidelined with Knopp, visibly taken aback, stating “Really?” and then “no.”
An unidentified man summed up the agitated crowd and stated that the two men were hesitant towards committing to any real movement on any bill in the legislature. He observed that although there had been a lot of questions on different issues “all the crowd had heard were excuses ranging from “Well, I'm not on that committee' or “That's the Oregon Land Board that needs to make that decision,” to “the courts have sort of boxed us in so we can't do anything about that.”
He then asked, “So before we leave today, I want to give you to give the opportunity to tell us, what is it....that you're doing? Why should we be sending you back each time?” The crowd erupted in loud applause.
Knopp calmly explained that the two could of spent “the whole hour telling you about all the bills we've introduced and supported — that we're trying to get passed but we decided we wanted to hear from you guys.”
Whisnant visibly upset, countered, “Did you know you can go online and see every vote I've ever made? You can go online and look at every bill I've introduced? Have you taken the time and effort to do that?”
The man said he had, but Whisnant continued, “And you ask me that question? Go online and do your homework before you ask a question like that! I could spend the rest of the day sitting here and telling you what I've done, for going on 14 years, but you come here and throw a question like that without knowing the background, and just want to make the TV!”
After taking several more (calmer) questions from the crowd, the town hall adjourned with most of the crowd thanking the two men for their work. It remains to be seen what they will accomplish in the next 100 days in legislature.