See what Oregon State Representative Jefferson Smith had to say to business people, and how he answered their often-direct questions …
East Portland Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs chair Ken Turner welcomes Oregon State Representative Jefferson Smith to the podium.
Story and photos by David F. Ashton
At their July Governmental Affairs Forum, members of the East Portland Chamber of Commerce (EPCC) got to hear from Oregon State Representative Jefferson Smith.
In his brief introduction, EPCC’s Governmental Affairs chair Ken Turner told the 30 members and guests in attendance at Cherrywood Village that this was Smith’s first legislative session, with most of outer East Portland in his district. “You’ll have the opportunity to ask questions of Rep. Smith about issues, including the increased business tax.”
Representative Jefferson Smith describes his work during his first session in the State Legislature.
Speaks of challenges
“It’s every politician’s dream to be introduced at a Chamber of Commerce meeting with the last words being said being, ‘business tax’,” Smith quipped.
“It is wonderful to be here. I appreciate this organization, and your participation in it. I think one of the greatest challenges facing our community is an under-representation in the halls of the legislature. It’s been interesting to view the process of engaged citizens who leverage energy and power and influence in the various nodes of decision-making. I appreciate that you’re continuing to do this – engaging in the process.”
Mr. Smith goes to Salem
“As a first-term legislator, ‘the suit is still worn uncomfortably’. I’m one of the youngest members of the state legislature. It makes me feel a little bit nervous to speak to a group, when many of the people in the room are wiser, and somewhat more knowledgeable about what’s happening in Salem, than I am.”
After spending six months in a metaphorical “lion’s den”, Smith said he was uncomfortable with the amount of “firepower” supplied by organizations “that focus on very narrow and specific issues, or are advocating for very narrow, specific issues of self-interest.”
What he had in common with many of those present, Smith continued, was running an organization. “This includes meeting payroll and figuring out what it takes to provide health insurance for about 15 or 20 employees. I recognize some of the challenges, these days, of running a business. This is the worst time to try to ‘make a name for oneself’ by getting in government service. But, for those who desire to help to make things better; or make the bad things less bad, it’s a good time.”
Giving citizens the opportunity to “look in” on the State’s budget process, Smith says, will provide more accountability.
Effort to increase governmental ‘transparency’
“The Legislature made some efforts to balance the budget. If we are going to engage in [State budget] historic cuts, and for the first time we’re going to raise some taxes – we also ought to take a landmark step to give people more information about what their [State] government is doing; provide more accountability.”
After some wrangling, Smith reported, this bill gained sponsors on both sides of the House aisle. “Now, starting January 1, all [State] government spending will go online. You, and every voter in our state, can look over what we’re doing, and give feedback to the legislators to not make government bigger or smaller – but better.”
Bridging the ‘digital divide’
Smith said that a lack of access to high-speed Internet is an issue shared by outer East Portland and many rural Oregon districts.
“Access to broadband may be equated to access to a telephone 50 or 70 years ago. It’s not true that everyone must have access to high-speed Internet. But having access means a better ability to do job searching, looking for a place to buy product, recreating – hopefully an appropriate ways. We created a Broadband Council to put forward a strategy to shrink the digital divide, to provide broadband access to those who don’t have it.”
Public works jobs
Next, Smith talked about employment legislation. “We’re making sure that we have money to retrofit public buildings. This is really good news, because every dollar we apply to inefficient public buildings does two things:
“One is to provide some economic stimulus now; some jobs in the short term. The other is that every dollar we apply to make our public buildings and energy efficient will be paid back – probably in, depending on the project, about five years. . . After that five-year period, it’s a good cost-efficiency strategy.”
Smith added that they’re working on legislation to encourage owners to upgrade private buildings and homes to make them more energy-efficient.
Smith says that having more sidewalks, and increased public safety, in outer East Portland, will provide health benefits.
Connects health and public safety
“I made an interesting connection between health and public safety,” Smith told the group.
“We have one of the least-healthy districts [in the State] in Portland, terms of life expectancy, et cetera. Only 10% of health outcomes, like life expectancy, are dictated by our healthcare delivery system.” Better health, Smith opined, comes about when individuals walk more.
“In many of our neighborhoods we don’t feel safe enough, and we don’t have enough sidewalks – and it may have as much to do the health of our district as several other little pieces of our healthcare delivery system. A committee is working on how public safety is connected with health issues, including mental health.”
Making rural water plans
The final topic of legislation on which Smith said he had worked was rural water policies.
“Our state spends less on water development projects than just about any state in the West. Why should we care about that? I’ll tell you. In the Umatilla basin, they have dryland wheat farmers with land producing about $100 per acre. With water, that land and can produce $250 to $500 an acre. That’s economic development that will have an impact throughout the state, as those folks start being larger economic players.”
Solutions include covering irrigation ditches to prevent water loss, and injecting wintertime high-level Columbia River water into underground natural aquifers.
Questions and Answers
Rep. Smith doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind when grilled about the possibility of increased state business taxes.
Q Roy Stanfill, with World Financial Group, stated, “The last legislative session spent a lot of time on raising taxes on business owners. It also pushed through an expensive ‘health reform’ package that will cost taxpayers millions. Do you guys understand that taxes trickle down and raise our costs of our assurance and everything else? It seems like everything boils down to partisan politics. It seems like Democrats vote for any [bill] handed down by the House Speaker or Senate President.”
A “Yes, some folks in the legislature do understand. The number of people who run small businesses in the House and Senate in Oregon is relatively high. Therefore the people that are impacted by the stuff include a lot of legislators. But the reality is, there isn’t any way for me to address our state’s fiscal challenge if we thought the only thing we should do is make cuts. Let me address this squarely. We have the biggest shortfall in the history of this state, in the last half-century.” Smith continued, “There are three things we can do with a $4.2 billion shortfall. The first is to cut. 95% of the state general budget goes to educate, medicate, and incarcerate.” Smith listed possibilities as cutting a month of schooling across the state, reducing public safety funding, and making major cuts to health and human services budgets. “I know that Lars Larson says differently.”
“The second thing we can do is increase taxes. Or, the third course of action is somewhere in between – which is the only sensible course. It’s not a ‘fun’ course [to present, in your first address to your] Chamber of Commerce; it’s not a good course for re-election or fundraising. It’s not a good course for those who seek future political careers. But it is the only sensible and courageous way to deal with the problem; the only honest way to deal with the problem is some combination. I hope you’ll say, and your friends who listen to those various radio shows will say, this is a balanced approach to the problem.”
Increased business taxes, Smith tells the group, is based on ability to pay, and shifts some of the tax burden from individuals to corporations.
Q Dan La Grande with La Grande Public Relations followed up, asking, “Why did the legislature choose to make many of the tax increases permanent rather than temporary? When our economy improves, out State government will continue to take a larger percentage of our resources.”
A “It’s become a controversial thing. The vast number of tax increases are temporary. The argument for the ‘permanent side’ is essentially that we’ve had, frankly, one of the lowest tax burdens in the country. The increases … will make our tax system a little bit more fair over time; and, being based on ability to pay is at least defensible. Much of our tax burden is significantly shifted toward individuals. This is putting more burden on corporations.”
Q Holly Moss with The Bookkeeping Company asked, “The City says sidewalks are supposed to be installed when a developer improves an area. Otherwise, homeowners must take on the expense.”
A “It’s almost an intractable problem because sidewalks are expensive.” Smith said that developers include sidewalks in the price of a new home. “But, for a homeowner to kick in $20,000, it seems darn near impossible. The answer is: I’m not sure. I’ve argued that the City of Portland should recognize that they project that 25% of the population growth will be east of 82nd Avenue. Don’t just pave arterials, pave potential arterials, and add in some money for sidewalks.”
Q East PDX News asks, “Was there any action regarding funding repairs of the Sellwood Bridge?”
A “It was included in the transportation package; I believe about $9 million. It’s not much, but it was included.” Although it was difficult to get out-state representatives to vote for an appropriation, “Some of my colleagues voted for it. I don’t think it will build even half a bridge – but if they start, I’d prefer they build it on the east side,” Smith quipped.
Rep. Smith says his research shows that tort reform would not significantly lower the cost of health care.
Q Rich Sorem, EPCC President asked, “In the discussion of health care costs, one of the costs to be considered is tort reform. What’s going on the state level, because I’ve read that torts add as much as 40% to health care costs?”
A “Actually, it’s closer to 1%. And that’s not me talking; this information was shared with me as I was trying to make decisions based on objective information and try to be independent in terms of thinking. When I hear people say we need go after trial lawyers – this is a false, misleading political line, and will not lead to actual savings.”
Much of the political information one gets, Smith stated, comes “through filters; generally from those looking for political advantage.”
In closing, Smith told the group, “I hope the discussions don’t revolve around whether we are making government larger or smaller, or increasing taxes, but about how we can make our system of government better.”
To contact Rep. Smith, see his website: http://jeffersonsmith.com.
The East Portland Chamber of Commerce meets every Wednesday morning for a “Good Morning East Portland” networking meeting at different locations. For more information, see their informative website at: www.eastportlandchamberofcommerce.com.
© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News