Other topics included health care and marijuana legalization in Oregon

With fires still raging throughout the Central Oregon area, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden held a town hall in Prineville where forestry and other issues arose.

Attended by about 30 people, the meeting held at Crook County Open Campus, kicked off with Walden passing the microphone to Ochoco National Forest Supervisor Kate Klein for a wildfire update.

That information later segued into a discussion about forest management in which Walden talked about new legislation he had developed in hopes of limiting wildfires in Oregon.

“At its core element it does two things,” he said. “It deals with the O&C counties, counties mostly on the west side (of Oregon) that are under the 1937 Oregon-California Railroad Act, which specifies those lands are to be managed to create jobs and harvest timber on a sustainable basis.”

Walden said that the bill would take half of those lands and put them under state law with a trust, allowing them to avoid litigation and exercise more local control.

“The other piece of the bill sets up a similar sort of expedited process with a lot of local input to manage sections of the federal forest lands,” he said. “It too would spur action, generate revenue, and get us back to more proactive forest management strategy.”

Walden stated that the legislation will not only prevent major wildfires, but generate revenue for local government services, a concern raised by Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley.

Noting that county law enforcement needs more funds for jail space and more, he stressed that something needs to be done to account for shrinking forest revenues.

“I’ll just say it - federal government maybe needs to start paying property taxes like everyone else does,” he said.

Other topics raised included health care, the current push in Oregon to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and the status of the local water legislation.

“We are hoping to get the Bowman Dam legislation done,” Walden said. “We have passed it twice in the House unanimously ... The Senate committee has now marked up the bill. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to get a unanimous position as we were, so it came out of the Senate committee on a split vote, which always portends poorly for floor consideration. But, at least we are seeing some progress.”

Regarding health care, Walden referenced new legislation he introduced in the House that addresses home health care, which he said is facing funding reductions.

“Under the Affordable Care Act, there is a provision that could cut reimbursement rates for home health care by 14 percent between now and 2017,” he explained. “These cuts are going to have a very serious effect. In fact, I have seen one study that showed up to 71 percent of Oregon’s home health care agencies will be in the red by 2017 if we don’t stop these across-the-board cuts.”

Walden said his bill would instead base cuts on the quality of the service provided.

“You have a certain set of standards and if you meet those standards for efficiency and outcome, you get this pay level,” he explained. “If you don’t, then you get cut.”

Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe broached the marijuana topic, expressing her concerns about allowing dispensaries in the city when use of the drug violates federal law. Walden acknowledged that many states have passed laws legalizing medical marijuana use, and two others for recreational use.

“The (U.S.) Justice Department said they are not going to enforce the law against states that have medical marijuana laws,” he said. “You do have this conflict between state and federal law.”

Walden said he tends to lean toward the rights of individual to determine such laws, and believes that with so many states legalizing the drug, the federal government may eventually choose to follow suit.

Nevertheless, Walden did not see any readily apparent solution to the conflict at this point.

“It’s a heck of a mess,” he said.

Toward the end of the town hall, local resident Craig Brookhart questioned Walden regarding his concerns about a shift in the balance of power in federal government.

“Some of the constitutional scholars right now are seeing our government being forever changed,” Brookhart said. “Are you guys feeling that sense of outrage in Congress that the government is skewed so heavily toward the administration that they are pretty much doing whatever they want? What is the big plan to rebalance things?”

In response, Walden said that the upcoming election will play a role in restoring balance between the branches of government.

“We are a democracy,” he said. “This does play out in the ballot box.”

Beyond the election, Walden said that Congress can address a power shift with legislation or file a lawsuit against the president, something the House has already pursued. Walden said he met with the lead attorneys litigating the lawsuit and the House Rules Committee held a hearing that included the attorneys representing the both House and the Obama Administration.

“I think they make a pretty good case,” Walden said.

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