Reducing carbon dioxide emissions and addressing a significant health care budget shortfall are just two of the challenging issues facing the Oregon Legislature this year, state Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, told the Eagle.
Bentz said the top issues he expects to focus on in the session beginning Jan. 22 are the impact of carbon reduction legislation on rural areas, addressing water resources in drought years and providing more attainable housing.
An attorney and farmer in Ontario, Bentz served in the House from 2008 until he was appointed on Jan. 8, 2018, to fill the remainder of former Sen. Ted Ferrioli’s seat. He easily won election in November.
Bentz is the Senate Deputy Republican Leader, but the Democrats hold a supermajority in the Legislature. He has been appointed co-vice chairperson of the Joint Carbon Reduction and the Joint Tax Expenditure committees and vice chairperson of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee. He will also sit on the Joint Transportation and Senate Judiciary, Environment and Natural Resources committees.
“I am pleased with my committee assignments,” Bentz said. “Except for Judiciary, I was on similar committees while in the House, so I am happy to have the opportunity to put my 10 years of House experience to work for Oregon and my district now that I am in the Senate.”
Bentz said, based on his experience, these committees will be working on much of the most interesting and meaningful legislation in 2019. His committee assignments “provide a chance for me to help protect and advance the interests of our part of the state,” he said.
A fundamental question facing the Legislature is whether Oregon should put a price on carbon emissions to address climate change. Most Oregonians tell pollsters yes, Bentz said.
There are three ways to reduce carbon, he said: cut emissions, tax emissions or create a tax and cap market for carbon. After traveling thousands of miles speaking to experts and the public and reading piles of reports, Bentz said he is convinced taxing carbon is the most effective way to change behavior.
The Democrats, however, prefer cap and trade, he said. The result could be significant negative impacts to rural residents — including a 14-16 cent per gallon increase for gasoline and rising freight costs. He calls carbon the most challenging issue in his legislative career.
That would make health care the second most challenging. With one out of every four Oregonians expected to be using Medicaid, the state is facing a $600 million budget shortfall for the program, he said.
In the past, taxes on hospitals raised funds for Medicaid, he said, but new legislative proposals include taxes on insurance premiums. What’s needed are cost controls, Bentz said, but prior efforts failed, and he’s seen no new proposals for controlling the cost of health care.
Bentz said he also hasn’t seen any new proposals for controlling the state’s Public Employees Retirement System. He blamed a lack of enthusiasm by the governor’s office and the need for significant structural reform to the program to prevent past mistakes.
The impact of PERS on education can’t be understated — about 25-35 percent of educational funding goes to PERS, he said. As a result, local schools find it difficult to hire good teachers.
Bentz, who has served on local school boards, said he wants to know why the majority party hasn’t been held accountable for the PERS issue. The answer may lie in the lobbying powers of teachers unions, which makes it nearly impossible to pass effective education legislation.
Providing attainable housing is another complex issue. Bentz advised communities to protect their existing housing stock and hire experts to analyze local conditions and provide a plan. Rural homes typically range from 60-70 years old, and they were never built to last a century, he said.
In the end, providing more attainable housing will mean more taxes. Bentz said he was glad to be back on the Revenue Committee where he can have a voice. The housing issue also needs more public discussion, he said.
It was Bentz’s predecessor, Sen. Ferrioli, who helped Grant County get a $1.8 million appropriation to improve internet access. Bentz expects to see further support debated in the legislature. Broadband supporters want users to raise needed funding through taxes on phone bills, Bentz said, but he was concerned about how the money would be used.
Bentz is also willing to take on an old issue that hasn’t been resolved — increasing the tax on phone bills used to help fund 911 dispatch. The proposal divides rural communities that struggle to pay for emergency dispatch and metropolitan areas where funding is less of a problem, he said. But effective 911 systems also help tourists from metropolitan areas as they pass through rural areas. Raising the phone tax is a necessary safety issue, he said.