Betsy Johnson

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, co-chair of the Joint Ways & Means Committee, opens a state budget hearing in Coos Bay.

Oregon legislators are to be commended for going outside Salem to hear from real people about the state budget and other issues. But lawmakers should go further, adding more rural perspective to the urban voices that seem to dominate at the State Capitol.

The road-trip public hearings are a start.

“Your input is critical to how we make final budget decisions,” Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, told the budget-hearing audience in Coos Bay last Saturday. “We need to hear from you about your needs and your priorities and your ideas on the way that state funds can be best used.”

Johnson co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Ways & Means Committee, which will write the state’s 2019-21 budget and has had numerous hearings at the Capitol already on budget bills. The committee will be in Pendleton on Friday and Redmond on Saturday, wrapping up its four-city tour on March 21 in Portland.

Those visits are valuable, although they provide limited exposure to the “real-people” perspective outside the Capitol. Only a few dozen people can be heard during the two-hour budget hearing in each city. Each person testifying is strictly limited to two minutes. But when people speak from the heart, instead of reciting talking points prepared by interest groups, their stories can resonate with legislators.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction also visited four towns this year, held hearings at the Capitol, and took remote testimony by video for an hour each from Baker City and Newport. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the feedback will result in changes throughout House Bill 2020, known as Clean Energy Jobs, while holding true to the concept of a carbon cap-and-trade system.

Progressive Democratic majorities control both the House and the Senate. It is not realistic to expect that a few rural hearings will cause Democratic leaders to suddenly reverse course on an issue. But rural voices can be a moderating influence, affecting both what goes into the final legislation and what is left out.

Urban legislators say they care about rural Oregon. Their interest and commitment seem genuine. But rural needs and rural perspectives often are far different than those of urban constituents. To really know rural Oregon, it’s not sufficient to simply make a few visits every couple of years.

This is the 21st century. Technology prevails. The Legislature should make video conferencing and other methods of remote testimony for individuals a common practice.

Few farmers, ranchers, commercial fisherman or other rural residents can afford to make hours-long drives to Salem, only to testify briefly. But through technology, they could step away from work, home or school long enough to have their say.

For now, we have the committee field trips. We are disappointed that a hearing was not scheduled for the North Coast. Despite their drawbacks, we encourage you to attend if possible.

You’re an Oregonian. It’s your Legislature. Make your views known.

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