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Bentz: Klamath water deal could have ripple effects on E. Oregon

By MIKE FERGUSON Baker City Herald February 19, 2008

With two full weeks under his legislative belt, Cliff Bentz says he's figured out the secret to getting by at the Capitol.

"It's a function of knowing the right people to ask questions of and knowing what's going to be important to your district," said Bentz this morning by telephone from his Capitol office.

Bentz, an Ontario Republican, represents Baker, Malheur, Harney and a portion of Grant County in the Oregon House of Representatives.

Even though one eye is on his district during weekly phone interviews, Bentz invariably asks about "the weather back home" the freshman legislator said he's keeping another eye on issues that don't affect his constituents directly now, but might one day.

A case in point is the proposed settlement for the Klamath River Basin, in which four dams could be removed to protect fish, fishing and other in-stream interests, but at the expense, Bentz says, of ranchers.

Because of his experience on the Oregon Water Resources Commission, Bentz was asked to sit in on a presentation about the proposed settlement before the House Natural Resources Committee.

"The broader issue here is taking care of folks with water rights," Bentz said. "It is a huge, huge, huge, negative, dangerous and bad thing for the ranchers there. The political force is with the tribes and the instream interests, and that leaves the ranchers feeling pretty lonely. My job was to remind folks that water rights are rights that need to be protected."

That's an issue, he said, that "could make a circle and apply to places like Eastern Oregon."

At another hearing this one before Bentz's House Transportation Committee Bentz said he found himself in the awkward position of trying to help clean up an unintended mess that the previous Legislature made, this time in an ethanol bill.

Bentz said he's heard of at least two flaws in the law. When the only fuel available is a gas/ethanol blend, a lot of old agricultural equipment from chainsaws to four-wheelers won't be able to handle the blend.

And gasoline station owners say they won't have the facilities to store unblended gasoline in their underground tanks.

To solve that problem, Bentz proposes that the new law exempt premium gasoline from the blending requirement. About 7 percent of the gasoline sold in Oregon is premium fuel, he said.

"That'll mean I have to buy premium," for the equipment to run his own small farm outside Ontario, he said, "but at least I'll be able to find it."

"That was the most clear example to me of people getting behind an idea too soon before it had worked its way through the system," Bentz said.

Bentz said he "ran into the governor the other day" at the Capitol, and all Ted Kulongoski wanted to talk about was Senate Bill 1069, which would in part direct the Water Resources Department to provide grants to study water storage sites.

Bentz said he's heard that the bill, currently in the House Ways and Means Committee, would specifically benefit Baker County by paying for a pilot study here. Studies are limited to $500,000 each. He planned to meet today with Water Resources Department director Phil Ward to discuss the bill.

"That bill's still alive," he said. "It's got a lot of people behind it, including the governor."

Bentz had a breakfast meeting last week in Salem with Baker County Commission Chair Fred Warner Jr., but said he didn't have much good news on transportation issues for the county's top elected official. Last week's lower-than-expected revenue forecast announcement coupled with fewer federal road dollars available will put a damper on new money for local road budgets, he said.

"That is all very disquieting," Bentz said. "Gas tax revenues are diminishing, because people are driving cars with greater fuel mileage, yet there's still the same amount of wear and tear on our roads."

There's a "huge list" before the Transportation Committee "of what every community wants for its road system, and most of them are linked with economic development."

The bill that might concern Bentz the most is House Joint Resolution 100, which passed the Democrat-controlled House last week 31-29 along party lines. That bill, now before the Senate, would create in the Oregon Constitution a fundamental right for health care.

The problem, as Bentz sees it, is the price tag, which Bentz figures will be at least as costly as education, the state's biggest bill.

"Why put this before people if you don't attach what the cost is?" he asked. "If you are a legislator and this becomes a right in the Constitution, you must fund it.

"We all want access to affordable health care. But what's affordable? Who gets the health care? This is dangerous business down here. You can seriously affect education, because health care would be on an equal foundation with that.

"Do we double taxes? Cut funding by half? We do people a disservice, because most folks are too busy making a living to think these things through."

On a happier personal note, Bentz said he's heard talk that the scheduled month-long session might wrap up this week. That would suit Bentz fine.

"It's great being here," he said, "but it is 401 miles from home."

Mike Ferguson can be reached at 523-3673 or mferguson@bakercityherald.com.

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