Oregon Senator Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, will ride in the Northwest Cherry Festival Parade in The Dalles and the performance stage has been renamed after him in recognition of his public service to District 30 residents.
The stage was previously named after Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, who left the Legislature last fall to serve on the Northwest Power and Conservation Planning Council.
Bentz, who represented House District 60 for 10 years before being appointed to replace Ferrioli last fall, stopped in at the Chronicle during an April 29 visit to The Dalles to talk about his campaign.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time in my car, crisscrossing the district to meet with folks,” he said, following his visit to Orchard View farms and AmeriTies.
“I want to get to know the nature of this space and what everybody needs,” he said.
Bentz is being challenged in the Senate District 30 race by Solea Kabakov, a Democrat who lives in The Dalles.
A farmer and attorney, Bentz believes he is a good fit for the district because his family has been in Eastern Oregon for generations, so he fully understands rural concerns.
He said being a voice for a large swath of the state, with challenges vastly different than the large metropolitan centers, is greatly rewarding.
District 30 encompasses Baker, Grant, Harney, Jefferson, Malheur, Wheeler and parts of Clackamas, Deschutes, Lake, Marion and Wasco counties. The district is home to 126,100 residents and covers a 36,000 square mile area, accessed by 14,342 road miles.
One of his signature achievements in the Legislature, said Bentz, was helping to craft a $5.3 billion transportation funding package last year that would improve the more than 12,000 miles of state, county, city and federal roads in House District 60 (more than four times the distance between Portland and New York City).
He was seated on the House Transportation and Revenue Committee, which developed House Bill 2017. The measure reallocated $5 million per year from Oregon’s most populated counties, such as Multnomah and Washington, to the 160 cities with populations of less than 5,000 people. Bentz was able to get the amount raised from $1 million to $5 million.
“Although not perfect, the bill responded to the hundreds of District 60 constituents who repeatedly asked that I find additional money for their roads, even if it required an increase in the gas tax,” he said.
He gained support from all 15 county commissioners in the five counties he served for the road funding plan.
“Since this district has over 29,000 square miles of land, it’s no wonder we need 12,000 miles of roads,” he wrote in a 2017 position paper. “We need to care for, replace and upgrade Oregon’s road and bridge system, much of which was built with our parents and grandparents money over 50 years ago.”
The bill was supported by the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, AAA, the Oregon Trucking Association, auto dealers and others.
He wanted to make sure when House Bill 2017 was being considered that rural Oregonians ended up with some benefits from the additional funding, and not just subsidizing road improvements in Portland, Salem and Eugene.
The package includes a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase phased in over seven years, a $20 registration fee hike phased in over five years, and a $24 title fee boost phased in over five years. Bentz said the increases are phased-in to allow drivers, farmers, ranchers and truckers time to plan for them.
For years, he said the Legislature has struggled to find the money to pay for water and dryland ports, railroads and airports.
To cover those costs, HB 2017 included a one-half of 1 percent tax on car dealers based on new car sales. A portion of the proceeds from this tax, for the next six years, will be used to encourage the sale of electric cars. After the six-year sunset on the subsidy, all the money raised goes to intermodal improvements.
“This subsidy was an integral part of the hard-fought negotiations that resulted in the inclusion of a cap, freeze and transparency fix, which I drafted, applicable to the Low Carbon Fuel Standard,” said Bentz.
He is seated on the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. That committee heard, among other things, a “cap and trade” bill, which he opposed. He said that bill is expected to reappear in the 2019 session.
“I will do my research so that I can go to those meetings and hold my own,” Bentz said.
He said greater legislative oversight of how ODOT, cities and counties spend transportation dollars is included in the bill. He and other state leaders expect to see dramatic savings in ODOT’s annual budget that is about $1.6 billion after debt service is removed.
“It must be understood that even with the substantial new funding provided by HB 2017, and with the savings we hope to achieve in reducing waste, the slow decline in the overall condition of Oregon’s roads and bridges is not reversed, it is merely slowed down by HB 2017,” he said.
Oregon does not have a reliable source of funding for bus service,” said Bentz, which prompted Legislators to adopt a 1/10th of 1 percent payroll tax (about 38 cents per week for a worker making minimum wage). The tax is allocated to counties based on the amount each collects and is to be used for mass transit.
“The idea is to provide at least some transportation options to those who either cannot drive or cannot afford a car,” said Bentz.
“It is difficult to continue to live in a small community that does not have buses if you cannot drive to work, the super market, hospital or your church,” he said.
Bentz is seated on the Committee on Education, and the Senate Committee on Judiciary. He was previously seated on several key House committees, including Revenue, where he served as vice-chair for eight of his 10 years in the House.
He also served on the Legislative Council Committee, Task Force on Columbia River Governance and the Legislative Council on River Governance, as well as many other groups.
As past chair of the Oregon Water Resources Commission, he is highly knowledgeable about water resources, which he sees as a hugely important issue for rural communities.
He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Eastern Oregon State College in La Grande and has chaired several school boards.
He practiced law for 30 years before deciding it was the right time to serve in a public office. When not in Salem, Bentz continues to work in his Ontario law firm.
Bentz always wanted to serve in the Senate but was satisfied with the job Ferrioli was doing, so didn’t want to run an opposition campaign.
When Ferrioli left, he decided the time was right to pursue that plan while continuing his law practice.
“I’ve wanted to represent Eastern Oregon in a way that is reflective of all that I learned while growing up,” he said.
Bentz attended Regis High School near Salem and lived in Portland while attending Lewis and Clark Northwestern School of Law, where he earned a juris doctorate in 1977. He said living in higher population density areas was very different than the rural environment.
“The two spaces are just very different worlds,” he said of the urban/rural divide.
In both places, he said affordable housing is a vital need that must be addressed by state officials.
“Housing could be one of the most difficult challenge Oregon has,” he said, referencing not only stringent land-use regulations but the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) mindset of people about developments for low- and middle-income residents.
“Our system development charges are high, and we have infrastructure problem and fire protection issues to work through,” he said. “I do not pretend it’s a simple issue; no one size fits all. We have to look for balance.”
Bentz said the state also must address the mental health problem that is filling jails and leading to a growing homeless population.
Bentz and his wife, Dr. Lindsay Norman, have two grown children, Scott, 24, and Allison, 26.
Cliff and Lindsay have participated in Cycle Oregon three times.