A last-minute flight cancellation had pushed state Senator Bill Hansell’s bedtime back to 2 a.m. on Wednesday morning, but he was still sitting in front of constituents at Hamley’s Cafe in Pendleton by 8 a.m.
“I may fall asleep up here,” he said, perhaps only half-jokingly.
He and Rep. Greg Barreto were hosting the first of five joint town halls over two days, broaching a wide-ranging series of questions. In Pendleton, opioids and climate change were on constituents’ minds. Milton-Freewater residents were concerned about renewable energy. Wolves, water and health insurance were all discussed in Echo.
At Hamley’s, the conversation veered into environmental issues after Barreto expressed frustration that Oregon was one of the only states in the country that lost jobs during August and September. He said Democrat-led bills such as the minimum wage increase continued to lay new burdens on Oregon businesses, and criticized a $1.4 billion carbon tax that Democrats may try to introduce during the short session as another burden for local food processors and generating plants.
“We’re already leading the country in CO2 reduction and yet we’re trying to add to the cost to the people of Oregon,” he said.
He said he does believe in climate change, but “what hasn’t been proven is how much is man-made,” and damaging the economy over it would be a mistake.
Some Pendleton residents disagreed. Chuck Wood said he was “very, very concerned” about climate change and Oregon needed to maintain its leadership on the issue. Marie Hall said she thought the state’s biggest polluters should pay more, and asked that Hansell and Barreto work toward a compromise that balanced the environment and economy.
“I urge you both to advocate for Eastern Oregon ... I urge you to work with the rest of the state and not have an isolationist attitude,” she said.
Many of the topics discussed over coffee that morning were ones the Republican legislators had heard before, but they did hear a new twist to the PERS problem: Two retirees on the Public Employee Retirement System said they would be willing to give up a part of their pensions to help keep the system solvent.
“You are the first PERS recipient who has ever told me, ‘We need to take a cut,’” Hansell said. “Every other constituent has told me, ‘It’s mine, I earned it, keep your hands off of it.’”
Both legislators said they were willing to consider the proposals put forth by the governor’s PERS task force, but they also believe the state must rein in government spending as part of the equation.
Later that day at the Milton-Freewater community center, Hansell and Barreto were the keynote speakers at a chamber of commerce luncheon where wind turbines, solar panels and hydropower were hot topics.
“You’re putting a manufacturing plant on zoned agricultural land,” one person said about windmills, calling for the state to limit the number of turbines allowed.
Others questioned why most hydropower doesn’t count toward the state’s renewable energy portfolio. Barreto said it would be too hard to get a bill on that subject passed through a Democratic-controlled house, Senate and governor’s desk, but anyone could do the work to get it put on the ballot as a citizen initiative. The Democrats have a 35-25 majority in the House and a 17-13 advantage in the Senate.
One woman asked the legislators to help her understand Measure 101, which the public will vote on during a special election on Jan. 23. Hansell explained that hospitals had agreed during the last legislative session to pay a “provider tax” to help fill a hole in the Oregon Health Authority’s budget and keep as many people as possible insured. But after Democrats also added a 1.5 percent tax on health insurance premiums, Hansell changed his mind about supporting the bill. A “yes” vote on Measure 101 will keep that premium tax, while a “no” will erase the tax, leaving a hole in the state budget that Barreto said could end up becoming the main focus of the legislature’s 35-day session in February.
For most of Oregon’s history, the legislature met only on odd-numbered years, but in 2010 voters approved a 35-day session on even years, meant to make budget corrections and tweak laws passed in the regular session that had created unintended consequences. During the 2016 session, however, lawmakers pushed through major pieces of legislation, including a minimum wage increase and clean energy bills.
Standing in front of constituents at Echo’s Butter Creek Coffeehouse and Mercantile on Thursday morning, Hansell and Barreto said they hoped the upcoming short session stayed more true to its design. Hansell said this year senators are only allowed to drop one bill for the whole session, and representatives are only allowed two. While Hansell is still keeping his options open, Barreto said he is introducing a bill that would cause the amount of money set aside for wolf depredation payouts to ranchers to automatically increase in proportion to the wolf population in Oregon. His second bill would allow for private building inspectors who can step in and help when cities’ inspectors are overwhelmed or have a conflict with a builder.
“We need to have enough qualified people to do these inspections so it doesn’t hold up construction and create a bottleneck,” he said.
Patrons at the cafe had ideas for the next long session, including adding deposits to Gatorade bottles and — from Umatilla County Undersheriff Jim Littlefield — increased funding for jails to help deal with mental health crises among inmates.
As the conversation wrapped up the legislators prepared to hit the road to their next town hall in Wallowa County ... right after Hansell bought one of the giant snickerdoodles he had been eying.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.