Legislative candidates share views at Columbia City forum
Candidates vying to represent Columbia County in the state Legislature gathered at Columbia City Community Hall last week to answer questions from voters.
Rep. Suzanne Weber, who serves House District 32 and is the presumptive Republican nominee for Senate District 16, attended the forum. Melissa Busch, a home health nurse and the presumptive Democratic nominee for SD 16, did not attend the forum but sent a campaign representative in her place.
Busch had a previously scheduled campaign event that evening, Sabbath Mikelson told forum attendees in Columbia City.
Drew Layda, who is seeking the Republican nomination for House District 31, participated in the forum. His opponent in the primary, Brian Stout, did not attend the forum or send a representative. The presumptive Democratic nominee for House District 31, Anthony Sorace, did attend.
Two candidates for House District 32, which includes Clatskanie as well as Clatsop and Tillamook counties, also participated.
The candidates were first asked about their top three priorities if elected.
Weber said hers were education, infrastructure, and "government accountability and what government does with our tax money, how it comes back to us, how it can be used to make our lives better."
Mikelson briefly introduced Busch's campaign but did not answer questions on Busch's behalf.
Busch "is running for office because we need a champion who will stand up and fight for the needs of our communities; a stronger economy for working families and small businesses; bringing down the cost of living; and increasing access to affordable healthcare," Mikelson said.
Sorace said his focus would be "making sure we have good jobs that you can support a family with, making sure you have a house you can put that family in, and making sure you can get the healthcare you need to keep everybody healthy."
Sorace said jobs are of particular interest for the district because of the vast difference in the job markets in different parts of the district. Most Scappoose residents who are in the workforce have jobs in Portland or Washington County, although the city itself has a growing industrial employment base. But the district also includes more rural communities like Vernonia and Timber that rely on the forest products industry — and have historically been hit hard by economic recessions.
"We need to make sure that we're … doing things that are going to protect jobs for everybody throughout the counties and the district," Sorace said.
Layda said his top three priorities were the economy, education, and accessibility to constituents. Layda would "act as a defender of our natural resource jobs."
"It's very important to have a classically merit-based grading system," where taxpayers "understand and know and have faith that it is the highest quality education the state could provide. However, if parents want to opt into a private education program, I think the money should be able to follow the student," Layda said.
He added, "Lastly, my goal is to maximize accessibility for the people in my district. If they close the Capitol now and again and decide they're not gonna let people in, you will find me in a lawn chair in the rotunda. I will always be accessible for my people, because the consent of the governed is how we own ourselves."
The candidates were also asked about their views on medical freedom and informed consent — concepts most widely discussed in recent years in the context of vaccinations.
Weber said medical freedom was very important to her but was not familiar with the term "informed consent." It refers to the idea that patients should be aware of all potential risks and side effects before agreeing to a course of treatment.
Layda said he supports medical freedom and informed consent.
"It's about understanding that you are more than a lab rat to some big pharmaceutical interest. And I think people are getting a little bit suspicious and a little bit cautious of pharmaceuticals," Layda added.
He said, "I think it would be wise to pay closer attention to the treatments on a case-by-case basis, and listen to one person when it comes to your healthcare, and that is your doctor."
Sorace said informed consent is important, but he doesn't consider it to be controversial or under threat.
"Medical freedom is more complicated, because there's so many ways that it gets attacked, from all different levels," Sorace said.
Oregon "has done a good job of protecting us from those elements of our political system or folks with certain ideologies who would like to go after your medical freedom, your ability to make choices about what you do with your body, especially if you are, say, a woman," Sorace added.
The candidates were also asked if they believed decisions were being made at a state level that would be best handled on a local level.
Sorace and Layda agreed that local experts are not always listened to enough by state decision-makers, but they differed on their views beyond that.
"Legislation at the most local level possible is how you keep your legislation by and for the affected. Having continual centralization of authority usually leads to one-size-fits-nobody policies that end up doing greater harm to our smaller divisions in Oregon," Layda said, listing emergency management and education as examples.
Sorace said the balance of power between federal, state, county and city governments has shifted repeatedly over centuries "because we recognize that there is no one answer that works forever."
"I don't expect we have exactly the right answer today," Sorace said.
Weber said more decisions should be handled locally, like vacation rental regulations.
Asked what state law would be a priority to implement or remove, Weber said she wants to work to change the redistricting process to create an independent committee to oversee redistricting, rather than having the Legislature handle it every 10 years.
"Take the political rhetoric out of it. Take the fighting out of it," Weber said.
Weber and Layda both said implementing educational standards would be a priority.
Layda said he would also seek to repeal Oregon's red flag law, which allows family members or law enforcement to ask a judge to prohibit a person from owning a gun for a year.
Sorace said he would prioritize improvements to mental healthcare. Mental Health America ranks Oregon 46th among the states, meaning high rates of mental illness and low access to services.
Sorace said he supports recent changes to Oregon law like decriminalizing drug possession and ending the use of non-unanimous jury convictions.
"But we haven't done a great job of dealing with people who have suffered from that in the past," Sorace said.
When changing laws for the future, "let's make sure we're doing a good job of addressing the harms that the state has caused in the past," he added.
Sorace and Weber both acknowledge climate change is happening, though they differ on how the state should address it. Layda was more dismissive, saying, "Climate (has) been changing since the climate has been there. And mankind will deal with that the same way we deal with everything: innovation and infrastructure."
Sorace said climate change measures should "encourage our timber industry … to make sure it stays healthy."
"If you're an environmentalist, if you're a progressive, the future we want has more buildings made out of wood and fewer out of concrete. There is no fight between the timber industry and the environment," Sorace said, adding, "There's a small number of wealthy people and companies that have tried to make that a wedge issue. But it's not. We want to help (the) timber industry because it's important for the future of a sustainable Oregon."
The candidates were also asked if they would work to lower taxes.
Layda said he would "absolutely vote to lower taxes in Oregon." He cited Oregon's rank as "fourth highest in per capita taxation in the United States," though Oregon's fourth place rank is for highest income tax rates. Per capita taxation rates for state and local taxes place Oregon lower, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Tax Foundation.
"I view prosperity on the thickness of the wallets of the people in my district, not how much money my state has in the coffers," Layda said. "The state often times finds itself funding things that, again, are not classical infrastructure. They're trying to call things now infrastructure that are not roads, or bridge or dam, or improvement of any sort."
Weber said she was working with an accountant to review Oregon's tax forms to identify potential changes that would make filing taxes easier for Oregonians.
"The other thing that we are working on is inheritance tax, because inheritance tax right now in the state of Oregon is totally off whack," Weber said.
Oregon does not have an inheritance tax, but it does have an estate tax, which works similarly. Oregon's estate tax only applies to estates valued above $1,000,000, meaning that no tax is paid up to that value.
Weber said the tax exemption should be increased to $2 million.
"We need to also hold our agencies accountable, and we have to make sure that they're not going to come forward with any more faux sales taxes like they came forward with last time that got defeated; the luxury tax," Weber said.
Sorace said he was opposed to Oregon's kicker, which is a rebate given to taxpayers when the state's actual revenue surpasses the expected revenue by more than 2%.
Sorace said Oregon "painted itself into a corner in some ways that most states don't have. The kicker, for example, makes budgeting long-term difficult. I know it's a very popular thing, but I think it makes our state government less efficient. And it makes all the levels of government below that less efficient because they don't operate in isolation."
Sorace said he didn't have a good answer to the question of if and how he would work to lower taxes, "outside of saying we need to look at this in terms of the overall picture of the services we're providing and how we're budgeting for that long-term."
The candidates were also asked how they would work to make housing more affordable in Oregon.
Layda said that the federal government's ownership of Oregon land was an issue. The federal government owns roughly 27% of the acreage across the country, but 52% of Oregon.
One of the biggest issues in housing was "remnants of policies that started in the 1980s through the 1990s to combat urban sprawl that was never happening," Layda said. Layda said Oregon hasn't significantly increased the amount of land available for building over the years, which has "led to entire neighborhoods being taken down and apartment complexes going up."
Layda said that states with "a growth-based model" increase property tax revenue by having low rates but high volume of taxable land. "Our state has a low volume, high-rate model where the rates are going to keep climbing until they decide to give us our land back and allow Oregonians to inhabit Oregon," Layda said. Taxing districts can't permanently increase their tax rate, but the actual dollar amount changes as the assessed value of a property changes.
Sorace said the first answer to how to make housing more affordable was to build more. "You want cheaper housing, you build more housing," Sorace said. "I think we need to look at this top to bottom. There is no answer that's going to solve all of it.
Weber said the legislature needed to look at "the structure of our permitting process, and the fees that we charge for our permitting process."
"We do have antiquated laws concerning planning and developments that also we're gonna be looking at… And the other thing that we need to look at is our systems development charges; what it costs for a city to provide sewer and water to those properties and how are people going to be able to meet those demands," Weber said.
"We need to look at options for people to be able to pay for these things, maybe over time, borrowed from the municipality so they can get it done, or other options, so that these things can be made possible."
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