The Legislature’s cup of accomplishments is either pretty darn full or running on empty, depending on whether you agree with the viewpoint of Central Oregon’s two Republican incumbent House members or the pair of Democrats seeking to unseat them in the Nov. 7 election.
District 54 Rep. Tim Knopp and his challenger, Ken Cooper, differed on issues ranging from education funding to health care costs and term limits to benefits for same-sex partners, as did District 55’s Ben Westlund and Democratic foe Doug Dunlap.
Knopp said he lived up to his campaign promises in his first term in office, boosting school funding while insisting on more accountability. Cooper, a longtime local teacher, said lawmakers failed to provide local schools with equitable funding and hadn’t done enough to help curb health care costs.
Dunlap, the mayor of Metolius, said many asked him why he decided to give up his spare time and time with his family to take on a powerful incumbent like Westlund. He said it’s probably the same reason he enlisted at the height of the Vietnam War or sought the mayor’s job or took time from his campaign to work at fire camps this summer: “I have a commitment to our community, our country and our land.” He also claimed spending on education has not kept up with inflation nor been equitable around the state.
Westlund said he wants a third term because as a father, he cares about the future of our community and our state. He also took exception to Dunlap’s claim of inequitable school funding, at least in kindergarten through 12th grade. (There are outstanding issues and legal challenges when it comes to education service districts, known as ESDs).
Asked their top priorities, Knopp said balancing the state’s budget within existing reserves is key, as is working with Westlund to bring a four-year branch campus to Bend. He also said he would work on health care issues and noted he had tried without success last session to raise the 30-day supply limits on drug purchases, thus saving co-payment and other costs.
Democrat said lawmakers haven’t done enough
Cooper said his priorities are “similar but drastically different” in viewpoint. He said the Bend-La Pine School District lost $330,000 due to the Legislature’s decisions and that he would have backed the school funding plan put forth by former House Speaker Lynn Lundquist of Powell Butte. “I believe we don’t have affordable health care plans, both for our seniors and children,” he said.
Dunlap agreed that balancing the budget will be the top issue, especially if any of three “devastating” ballot measures win voter approval in November. He agreed with Cooper that schools need more funding, noting how he attended a two-room school and how smaller class sizes help students greatly.
Westlund first said “the most important issue is your issue, since citizens are passionate and committed to programs they proposal. But he gave a different top priority: to reform the initiative process, which if not restrained in some fashion “one of these days will absolutely bankrupt our state.” Locally, he agreed with Knopp that a higher education branch campus will be a top Salem priority: “The window of opportunity is here. We have to seize that opportunity.”
The next question was a familiar one on an unpopular subject: funding road or other needs with a sales tax. All noted Oregonians’ decided distaste for the idea. Cooper said the state needs to rethink its priorities and provide fewer tax breaks to big out-of-state corporations. Knopp said he was the only lawmaker to speak on the House floor and oppose referring the May gas tax to voters, “and 85 percent of the electorate agreed with me.” He said more transportation solutions will have to come locally, rather than through state dollars.
Westlund said, “You can’t talk about the tax system in a vacuum. Do I consider a sales tax? Every day.” He said the state relies much too heavily on income taxes that are susceptible to economic swings and that Oregon has only two unbalanced legs of the traditional three-legged stool of taxes. While he sees “two chances, slim and less than none,” Westlund added, “If we could get a sales tax to alleviate the cruelest tax – the property tax – I would.” Dunlap said he’d consider a sales tax but isn’t sure he’d support it, noting that “we’re already paying a sales tax. We just don’t see it” when businesses pass on higher government costs to consumers.
Knopp backs contribution caps; Westlund wants PAC givers listed
Campaign finance reform also brought a variety of opinions. Knopp said he would like to see limits on campaign contributions that would meet the courts’ definition of “reasonableness,” since previous efforts have been tossed out by the courts. He said his largest single donations have been about $3,000 but that some candidates get up to $80,000 from a single donor. Cooper said he supports Measure 6, which would provide public funding of campaigns for candidates that voluntarily agree to limit their spending.
Dunlap said he spent several days this summer walking door to door in Redmond and talking to residents but realized that it didn’t garner him any money. Westlund agreed with Knopp that “reasonable limits” on contributions are a good idea, if they can pass First Amendment muster as not infringing on free speech. He also said he’d like to see contributors reported by name to the state and “not hidden through” political action committee donations.
Although term limits can help newcomers, Cooper said he’s “a bit dismayed” by them: “I’m still of the old fashioned school that if you want someone out of office, you vote ’em out of office.” Knopp noted that voters enacted term limits eight years ago by a 3-to-1 ratio and that he opposed as “self-serving” an effort to revise the limit to a flat 12 years, rather than six in the House and eight in the Senate. If there’s to be any changes, he said, they should come through a citizen-sparked initiative, not from lawmakers.
Westlund said one-third of House members turned over before any term limits were in place and called it an “insidious” step that hurts legislators’ ability to govern. “We get plenty of new blood in here without term limits, and what we lose is our grizzled old veterans who … know how to get things done.” Still, he said, he supports term limits because the voters have spoken. Dunlap said he, too, doesn’t believe in term limits, noting that he lost the Metolius mayor’s job by three votes in 1997, only to return to office two years later.
Knopp said Cooper had mischaracterized his support of one bill as an effort to kill the Oregon Health Plan, when he just wanted the state to negotiate a better federal waiver. “I want to help the governor keep his Oregon Health Plan, so he will have his legacy. It’s done a lot of good,” Knopp said. But Cooper claimed the “sunset law” was the “wrong way to go” to make needed improvements in the plan.
Dunlap said his own grandchildren couldn’t get medical coverage because their parents make slightly too much money for the Oregon Health Plan, but not enough to afford coverage on their own. Westlund said the need to help the working poor is a top priority but added, “For all its shortfalls, the Oregon Health Plan, by any measure, is a smashing success.” He said federal limits have resulted in the program’s funding not keeping up with the costs.
Same-sex benefits gain party-line split
On a controversial issue – providing benefits to same-sex partners of employees – Democrats and Republicans split as one might expect.
Cooper said, “I really don’t like government coming into our house and telling us what to do and what lifestyle we should live. … I have no problem with long-term partnerships (getting) some of the same benefits as opposite-sex partners.” Knopp noted that a court ruling mandated such coverage for public entities but added, “I would never vote to force a private company to provide any type of benefits they choose not to provide. Business costs are high enough to me, providing benefits they already have.”
Westlund applauded “the court’s enlightened decision” but agreed with Knopp about not forcing businesses to provide such benefits. But Dunlap said he supports providing such benefits. “I think sexual preference is akin to our race,” he said, calling denial of benefits an “open door to prejudices” that could lead to more restrictions. “I think all people should be treated equally,” Dunlap added.
Asked about the daunting list of 26 ballot measures and the initiative system, Knopp called it “the people’s process” but added, “To some degree, I think it’s being taken to the extreme,” especially with allowing paid signature gatherers. Cooper called it “a daunting problem” and said he is opposed to the paid signature process.
Dunlap noted that seven of the measures were referred by lawmakers and that lawmakers are chosen “to go to Salem and make decisions,” not pass them back to the public. Westlund said several of the legislative referrals are constitutional amendments that “we would prefer to have the people vote on.” But he said there’s a need to limit initiatives, noting the founding principles of the country involve a representative democracy, not a direct democracy.”
When candidates got to ask each other questions, some questions were longer than the answers. Knopp said Cooper was “wrong, wrong, wrong” about supposed cuts in the local school budget, noting the Bend-La Pine district’s budget was up 10 percent this year. “If you’re going to say not getting all that you wanted is a cut, I guess it’s a cut,” he said. Knopp then asked Cooper if he supported Measure 6, the public campaign funding measure, which the Republican called “a $24 million welfare program for politicians.” Cooper called it a good idea: “I’m for it.”
Westlund disarmed Dunlap by complimenting his Democratic challenger for stepping forward to run and asking, “How are you liking it?” Dunlap said he enjoys going door to door and talking to people but was frustrated to learn how many are not registered voters. “It’s depressing,” he said. He also noted Westlund has raised 100 times more money and dove into a criticism for the incumbent’s support of out-of-state corporations’ tax breaks. Westlund didn’t remember the particulars of the bill, but Knopp said it was an “intangibles tax.” Westlund guaranteed he only backs such efforts if Oregon gets something in return – but Knopp ended the forum by noting that Gov. John Kitzhaber had vetoed the measure anyway.
The debate, cosponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Bend Chamber of Commerce, will be aired at various times on COTV (Bend Cable channel 11) and also on KBND radio on Sunday at noon. Next up, next Thursday at noon at City Hall: Sheriff Greg Brown vs. challenger Les Stiles.