Ways & Means brings road show to Madras

Dozens of Central Oregon residents testified before the Oregon Joint Committee on Ways and Means in Madras Feb. 18.

HOLLY M. GILL - Rep. Dan Rayfield, of Corvallis, a member of the Oregon Joint Committee on Ways and Means, introduces himself Saturday, when the committee took testimony on the state's 2017-19 budget at the Madras Performing Arts Center. Rep. John Huffman, of District 59, is seated at right.
More than 60 people had the chance to voice their concerns to the Oregon Joint Committee on Ways and Means Saturday afternoon, at the Madras Performing Arts Center.

The Feb. 18 Madras hearing was the fourth in a series of meetings scheduled around the state, according to Rep. John Huffman, of The Dalles, who represents Jefferson County as part of District 59.

"We try to get all around and give people an opportunity to testify," said Huffman, who said that the most common themes for the hearings have been fully funding programs for veterans, disabled and senior folks, caregivers and education.

Among local residents testifying were Tom Weiss, veterans service officer, and Len Parsons, VFW quartermaster, asking for full funding for veterans services.

"Can you imagine trying to interview someone when the phone's ringing?" asked Weiss, whose office recently lost a part-time employee to budget cuts. "We need a receptionist."

Parsons pointed out that veterans bring billions into the state in compensation, benefits and health care, and are only asking for $10 million for veterans services.

Madras City Councilor Denise Piza, who is also works for the "Let's Talk Diversity Coalition," said that increasing health care for all Oregon children is one of the most important issues facing the state.

"Roughly 2 percent of children are excluded from health care in Oregon," she said, adding that her own children, including her 12-year-old son, who has a form of autism, are covered under the Oregon Health Plan.

HOLLY M. GILL - At left, Kurt Symons, director of the Jefferson County Community Corrections and Juvenile Justice Department, and County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen testify before the Oregon Joint Committee on Ways and Means Saturday, Feb. 18, at the Madras Performing Arts Center.
From Jefferson County, Community Corrections and Juvenile Justice Director Kurt Symons, Administrative Officer Jeff Rasmussen, and County Commissioner Mae Huston all testified.

Symons spoke out in favor of Senate Bill 1145, the Community Corrections bill, which he said would lower recidivism and reduce the use of the more expensive options of sending people to prison or jail.

"I don't think any of us want an additional prison," he said.

Rasmussen suggested that the state move toward a defined contribution plan to get a handle on the rapidly expanding obligation for the Public Employees Retirement System.

"We're starting to see struggles being able to recruit the next generation of PERS employees," he said.

Huston echoed Rasmussen's statements on PERS, noting, "Yes, we need something done," and also lent her support to the veterans who had testified earlier.

Madras Police Chief Tanner Stanfill asked the state to adjust the 911 tax, which was set in 1995, and "has never been adjusted."

Stanfill wants to see prepaid cell phones also taxed.

Madras Mayor Royce Embanks asked for the state's support in expanding the city of Madras' urban growth boundary. Embanks said that there are 1,154 acres of city airport property currently outside the UGB. (See related story on this page.)

A plan to support the independence of seniors was advocated by Louise Muir, who manages the Jefferson County Senior Center. "We supplied over 900 meals to people in their homes," said Muir, who hopes the program is not cut in the 2017-19 budget.

Local attorneys Jered Reid and Tim Gassner, of Madras, both expressed concern about cuts to indigent defense.

"I encourage you not to make cuts to the indigent defense fund," said Reid, a member of the Madras Indigent Defense Consortium, along with Gassner. Such cuts, he said, make it "almost impossible to recruit new lawyers."

Gassner said that it would be "short-sighted" to cut the defense fund, when there is a constitutional mandate to provide adequate defense for indigent defendants.

Testimony, limited to two minutes per person, also included many carrying signs, speaking eloquently on the need for increased funding of schools, and asking for an increased corporate tax to help fund schools.

On Monday, Huffman responded to emailed questions about the committee's process, noting, "Each Ways and Means Committee member takes notes and commits highlights of testimony to memory."

Commenting that increased taxation of Oregon corporations has been a constant theme, he observed, "This is primarily because the state employee unions have organized their members to come and testify and they are given general 'hit phrases' to work into their testimony."

"Interestingly, nobody has mentioned the fact that corporate members of the Oregon Business Association and Association of Oregon Industries have met with legislative leadership and said they are willing to pay more in taxes," he added. "Testifiers tend to paint Oregon businesses as unwilling to pay their fair share."

Committee members attending the local hearing included Sens. James Manning, Arnie Roblan, Bill Hansell, Chuck Thomsen, Jackie Winters, Betsy Johnson, Co-Chairmen Sen. Richard Devlin and Rep. Nancy Nathanson, and Reps. Dan Rayfield, Gene Whisnant, Huffman, Mike McLane, Jennifer Williamson and Paul Holvey.

"Gene Whisnant and I talked about the rudeness of the audience but no one else brought it up," Huffman said, referring to the applause after some people testified. "I did apologize to Sen. Devlin and told him my Jefferson County folks were the well behaved ones in the room."

Regarding the new Madras Performing Arts Center, where the meeting was held, Huffman said, "From a facility point, everyone commented on how wonderful the PAC is.  Our sound guy said it was the best facility he has set up in."

The committee's next stops will be in Ashland on Friday, Feb. 24, Eugene on Saturday, Feb. 25, and Tillamook on Friday, March 3.