SEN. SMITH DISCUSSES RURAL ISSUES

July 01, 2002 11:00 pm

By BRIAN BULLOCK

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., probably felt like he was preaching to the choir Monday when he visited Brookings.

There was no protest, little criticism and general agreement on the issues when he spoke with the public at a town hall meeting at the Chetco Community Public Library – and later at a re-election fundraiser at the Elks Lodge.

Smith listened to his constituents and explained what their federal government was doing to help them.

Issues ranged from marine reserves and port dredging to health care and education to the unavoidable subjects of death and taxes. Smith said his main reason for the visit was to gauge public sentiment on all of those topics.

"I have a few great passions in my public life and one of them is to make sure that places like Brookings and Curry County feel represented in the nation's capitol," he said.

"I represent the whole state of Oregon, but I come from a corner of Oregon just like you live in. While one may be concerned with forestry and fishing, where I come from they're concerned with forestry and farming. They're not unrelated. They're industries that built Oregon. And they're industries under assault by many federal policies that make survival in rural places a real question."

Fishing was among the topics at the top of the list of concerns. Port of Brookings Harbor Executive Director Russ Crabtree told the senator that, along with federal funding of port maintenance dredging, both state and federal focus on establishing marine reserves could economically cripple all coastal towns.

Crabtree said the state's portion of the marine reserves would cover shore to three miles out and the federal consideration is to the 200-mile international waters boundary.

Crabtree also asked Smith to do what he could in regards to amending or preventing the reinstatement of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act regarding fishing regulations. The act has heavily regulated the commercial fishing industry for nearly 20 years.

Curry County Commissioner Marlyn Schafer also raised a red flag on the possibility of marine reserves. After thanking Smith for the county's $65,000 payment in lieu of taxes (PILT) funds, Schafer said the reserves would probably be a death blow to the state's fishing industry.

"We would have no fishing zones. We already have devastated fishermen," she said.

Agreeing with both Crabtree and Schafer, Smith said the marine reserves issue is being pushed forward by radical environmentalists, both in government and out, and is based on questionable scientific data. He equated the situation to what happened to farmers who had Klamath River water cut off for more than a year based on what proved to be falsified scientific findings.

"What happened there, should happen nowhere," Smith said about the Klamath Basin. "What they found was there was no scientific basis for cutting off the water."

Smith said that once the National Academy of Sciences found key decisions regarding operation of the Klamath project had no scientific or technical support, President Bush was able to reopen the flood gates to area farmers.

Smith said that move by the administration signaled a change in policy toward environmental issues. He also said that, along with Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, he has "tried on many occasions" to amend the Endangered Species Act, which heavily restricts the fishing, farming and forestry industries. The changes would set standards for the scientific and commercial data used to take action under the ESA.

But, Smith said, changing the ESA is like a Coho salmon trying to change its spots.

"What they found was there was no scientific basis for cutting off the water," Smith said of the Klamath Falls situation. "I think that's maybe the case in some of the fishing issues here.

"All we want is to say before you list a species and submit a plan, just submit it to the National Academy of Science or a group like that so the people can have confidence that they're not making a wrong decision," Smith explained.

Brookings resident Ted Fitzgerald asked Smith if there was any way to get better cooperation and accountability from federal government agencies when they address issues like marine reserves, coastal dredging and endangered species problems. He said that often government agencies like the Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers seem to work against the public instead of with it.

Smith blamed a lot of the eco-terrorism going on around the country and in the government on the Clinton Administration.

"Bill Clinton was not a radical environmentalist, but Al Gore is. A lot of the people in these agencies were hired on his watch," Smith said.

Under that regime, environmental issues override economic considerations regardless of impact, Smith said. He added that ideology needs to change if the country wants to prosper.

"Fish don't come from Safeway, folks. And neither do green peas. They come from working folks like our fishermen and farmers," the senator said.

Smith said the president's decision to restore water rights to the Klamath Basin farmers signaled a change in policy regarding where environmental and economic issues clash.

"President Bush has a more balanced view of natural resources. If the Klamath situation is any indication of that, things are changing," Smith said.

At Monday's luncheon, Terry Smith, a Del Norte County lily farmer, told the senator of the restrictions put on his industry by governmental agencies.

"We know we've got a real tough fight on our hands," Terry said. "We know a lot of it has to do with chemicals used back in the '80s, but we know it will spread to other issues."

Terry said the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act have combined to make agriculture a tough proposition.

The senator reiterated his stance that it was time for a change in the Endangered Species Act. He said the 30-year-old act needs to consider "real science" not "political science" when rendering its findings.

"It seems to me we've learned a lot from it, but it also seems to me we could amend it," the senator said. "That's hard to do, though."

Another issue Smith addressed, which audience members said needs change, is health care.

Victoria Nuss, a small business owner in Brookings, said her business was forced to lay off an employee because of the high cost of health care.

Smith said that, along with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., he has recently introduced legislation that would provide tax credits for small businesses with 50 or fewer employees.

Another obstacle for small businesses, Smith said, is the inheritance tax.

"There is a major disagreement between the two parties on the government's role in the redistribution of wealth. I'm a member of my party in part because I believe the government's job is to create freedom for all to succeed and fail.

"If you work all of your life and you build up an inheritance for your children, it has already been taxed once, twice, several times. It ought not to be taxed at a 50 percent rate after you die.

"We shouldn't reach into your grave and force your children to sell your business in order to pay the government the tax. All that does is penalize small business. That says a small business will never become a big business."

He added, "I have voted repeatedly not just to alter the death tax, but to repeal it."

Smith also heard from other concerned citizens on the high cost of drugs and the lack of veterans' services on the South Coast. He said government needs to work with pharmaceutical companies to give them a market structure that benefits both them and the public they serve.

"The federal government spends billions in terms of medical research with the National Institute of Public Health. A lot of that information is used by pharmaceutical companies that develop pills that make life better. It's significant," Smith said.

"We've got to somehow recognize the contribution the public has already made and make sure the pharmaceutical companies get some return on investment. We want to preserve a market structure where pharmaceutical companies still have the incentive to develop these miracle drugs, but we have to cost them in a way that people can afford them."

Brookings City Councilor Larry Curry said that in addition to affordable medications, better services, especially for veterans who served their country, is needed.

He said veterans are often referred to Bandon, an 84-mile one-way trip, or Roseburg, a 170-mile one-way trip, for service.

Smith said medical services are getting harder to find in rural areas because of the high cost of doing business for many doctors. He said some obstetricians are leaving the business because of insurance costs and the threat of legal actions.

"We're on the verge of a health care crisis in this country because we are literally suing ourselves out of having doctors," Smith said. "It just goes too far when you take away a profession we rely on. We're working on making health care more affordable."

Elisabeth Cohen asked about federal funding of educational programs for children with disabilities. She supplied the senator with a report from the Oregon Advocacy Center on the need for more special educational programs.

Smith said all programs offered by federal, state and local government are paid for by taxes. And those taxes are ultimately traced back to the country's natural resources.

"The thing is, is that all of these things we want for our counties and our towns, smooth roads and better schools, all come from tax revenues. They all come from our natural resources and management of them," Smith explained. "Unfortunately some of those fundamentals are forgotten."

Smith said, though, the Bush administration is changing the course government has been on for the past decade.

"If I can use a metaphor, it's kind of like watching an ocean liner turn. It is almost imperceptible unless you keep watching for a long time," he said.

Despite questions about the possibility of being a potential running mate for Bush in 2004, Smith said he intends to be around to see that governmental ocean liner complete its turn.

"Oregon is a common sense place," Smith said when asked about the state's urban political power base. "It makes a place at its table for rural folks, too."