Taxes, the economy and two measures on the Jan. 26 ballot. Those topics dominated town hall meetings held over the weekend in Cannon Beach, Seaside and Astoria by state Reps Brad Witt and Deborah Boone and state Sen. Betsy Johnson, who represent Clatsop County residents in Salem. All three are Democrats.
Dozens of citizens packed the Kern Room at the Columbia River Maritime Museum Sunday for the Astoria town hall, which started at 11:30 a.m. and lasted for 90 minutes.
"People are frightened about their economic situation and they want to know what the Legislature's doing to fix that," Johnson said. "In every one of the meetings we've discussed Oregon's tax structure."
She said Oregon has "struggled fiercely with the economy" and the Legislature will have to meet in emergency session in February to deal with the crisis.
But despite the bad economic news, the tone of the town hall was civil and cooperative, punctuated by humor and devoid of the rancor displayed at town hall meetings elsewhere in the nation that focused on health care.
Johnson said two measures on the Jan. 26 ballot will let voters express their opinion on how well the Legislature did to fill a budget gap for 2009-2011 that could be as big as $4 billion. She said lawmakers did $2 billion in cuts, used some one-time federal stimulus money to fund the Human Services department, tapped into a rainy day fund and an educational stability fund, and then, "probably one of the most controversial acts," raised revenue. "It is the methodology of raising revenue and the fact that we raised revenue that will be before the voters on Jan. 26," Johnson explained.
? Ballot Measure 66 would raise the personal income tax rate by 1.8 percent on income above $250,000 for households and above $125,000 for individual filers through 2012. It would also make the first $2,400 in benefits for the unemployed exempt from taxation.
? Ballot Measure 67 would raise the minimum tax paid by corporations from $10 to $150. The tax has not been changed since 1931.
"Depending on what the voters do in January, we could have a hole as big as $700 million," Johnson said. If voters repudiate the Legislature's actions, Boone, Johnson and Witt all agreed there will have to be more cuts, and the cuts will have to come from human services, public safety and K-12 education - the very services that citizen say they want to preserve.
"The problem is, that's where the money is," Johnson said. "The shorthand is 'we educate, we medicate and we incarcerate.'... "That is 90 percent of our budget ... We will have no choice."
"Everything else is minuscule in comparison" to human services, public safety and K-12," Witt agreed. He said well over half the state's budget is spent on education, another 15 percent or so goes to public safety and about 25 percent to human services. "There simply is no way that we can put all the cuts into social services," Witt said. "We would literally be sending people into the streets."
Times are so tough, some members of the Legislature are actually talking about the possibility of a state sales tax, Johnson acknowledged, in response to a question from the audience.
Witt said taxes are supposed to be adequate, fair and stable. The present system, so heavily dependent on income tax, "flunks the stability test."
"When over 85 percent of your tax base come from an up and down rollercoaster, a lot of the public is beginning to question the wisdom of nine successive rejections of sales tax," Witt said. And Boone said Oregon's unique kicker tax is adding to the problem, pointing out that the kicker tax returned to citizens in 2007-09 was about equal to the budget shortfall.
Asked by Astoria resident Laurie Caplan how the public can help with the ballot measures, Johnson said the best way is by making sure the facts get out. Boone pointed out that 97.5 percent of Oregonians will see no increase in their taxes with Measure 66 and 95 percent of small businesses will be unaffected by Measure 67.
Other topics brought up by audience members included a complaint from a Knappa resident about new rules being proposed by the Department of State Lands without public input that put a burden on diking districts and property owners along the river. Johnson is working with members of the State Land Board to have the rule-making suspended.
There was also a question about the significance of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) moving from the Seattle area to Newport. Astoria had also been in the running, but withdrew. Boone said NOAA moving to Oregon is putting the state on the map when it comes to ocean renewable energy.
Johnson said she believes Newport could become the "Woods Hole" of the Pacific Coast. "I think this is a remarkable opportunity for Oregon in terms of investment, scientific research, informing our knowledge of the territorial seas and the nearshore. It is simply transformational for Oregon," Johnson said. "I see this as an Oregon win, not an Astoria loss or a Newport win. And it was the pragmatism and generosity of the Port of Astoria that I think was catalytic in making the decision work."
When the town hall ended, Astoria Mayor Willis Van Dusen thanked Boone, Witt and Johnson for their accessibility. His comment was followed by a round of applause for the three legislators, who were on their way to yet another town hall, this one in Clatskanie.
Johnson returned the praise, saying the turnout in Astoria was "by far the biggest" of the town halls they conducted over the weekend.
"It's testimony to how politically engaged Astorians are, how much they care about what happens locally and in Salem," Johnson said. "I doubt any crowd is going to beat this one, so I think Astoria wins the prize for most engaged citizenry for this round of town halls."