Town Hall

April 24, 2011

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a town hall meeting with my representatives in state government. There were about 45 or so people there listening to State Senator Chip Shields, State Representative Tina Kotek, and State Representative Lew Frederick introduce themselves and talk about what they were doing down in Salem.

It was a two-hour town hall meeting and, honestly, I learned quite a bit about what my representatives are doing and how they think. What I saw was interesting; all three legislators are bright, engaging, interesting people and this town hall helped humanize them. The legislature’s facing a difficult task: they started a couple months ago facing a $3.5 billion dollar shortfall and there isn’t a politician in Salem who doesn’t have a constituent begging them not to cut certain services. Each of them made reference to trying to save certain programs, and each took questions from the audience that consisted of “how will you try to save [x] program that’s meaningful to me?”

Probably the most interesting initiative I heard didn’t have an emotional connection to anyone in the audience. It came from Rep. Frederick, who mentioned a bill – I didn’t catch the number – that was set to expand the brownfields program. Essentially, brownfields are previously used lands tainted by environmentally hazardous materials – oil, gasoline, battery acid, etc – that would, if sold and reused, require cleanup by the new owner. The problem is that this cleanup is horrendously expensive and tends to leave these sites as unused, vacant lots. Any measure that could help get these sites back into use at a reasonable cost is, in my mind, a win.

However, the overall theme of this town hall was how they’re trying to carve up what revenues the state has taken in when those revenues are too small to even minimally fund all the programs we used to have. It’s a constant battle; every little program is meaningful to someone, and our representatives are (hopefully) constantly trying to find the most effective way to spend each dollar. Ideally, they’re looking to get the most bang for the buck in terms of return on investment. That’s a cold, heartless way of having to cut a program that’s too expensive but helps a small number of people, but, in my opinion, it’s what has to be done.

Finally, after the town hall, I got to mee Rep. Kotek face-to-face. I briefly tossed my thoughts on the kicker to her. Knowing that we should be squirreling away any budget surpluses – as my own research has shown – I asked her thoughts on it. After all, while I don’t support runaway government spending, there are some programs I tend to enjoy and slashing government spending during times of high unemployment just perpetuates a negative feedback cycle. Rep. Kotek mentioned that there were some ideas being floated around the capitol regarding the kicker and how to try to capture at least some of that surplus for when we have, for instance, multibillion dollar budget shortfall. I was glad to hear this.

The town hall was something I’m glad I attended; I’d like definitely attend more. Meeting those people elected to represent me helps establish a connection with my state government and might help get my modest, centrist viewpoint represented more in Salem.

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Measure 56

November 9, 2008

One result of our recent election is the passage of Oregon Measure 56, which repealed the double-majority law.

As it stood before this last election, any tax increase on the ballot (except for those in general elections in even-numbered years) required a majority of registered voters to participate and a majority of those voters to vote “yes” for it to pass. (An exception was made for general elections, probably because they usually generated enough voter turnout already.)

The upside to this was that an activist minority couldn’t sneak a tax increase through in a less-well-publicized election; a majority of voters had to take an interest one way or another for a tax increase to make it. Of course, this also meant that tax increases sometimes failed if enough attention wasn’t called to a cause. (Some people seemed to think this was a Bad Thing.)

I’m hugely disappointed that Measure 56 passed. I felt that it offered the voters important protections against a tyranny of the minority, and that it worked as it was intended to work. I can only hope that someone will see the light on this issue and realize that the voters made a mistake here.

Side note: I also think that the wording of the measure was designed to confuse. By saying, “Amends Constitution: Provides that May and November property tax elections are decided by majority of voters voting”, and not mentioning the existing system until page 2 or 3, the ballot measure title is deliberately obfuscating the current system, implying that a majority of votes didn’t already make the decisions (which they did.) I’m convinced that this wording was a contributing factor to the success of the ballot.