Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, is part of a workgroup of legislators age 40 and under who are looking at issues to tackle that matter most to younger Oregonians, including prison reform and early childhood development.
“Seven of us from a whole spectrum of ideologies are coming together to discuss issues that many people are too entrenched to discuss,” he said. “The hope is that we can find areas of bipartisan and bicameral agreement and get some beneficial things done.”
Bonham turned 41 last week but said he has been “grandfathered” in to continue with the Future Caucus. Nationally, the age of a caucus member is 45, but Oregon has set it five years lower.
“I told them that they just made the age 40 so they could kick me out,” said Bonham, who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of John Huffman as the representative for House District 59 last fall.
He is seeking re-election to the post and being challenged by Darcy Long-Curtiss, a Democrat also from The Dalles.
On the topic of sentencing reform, Bonham said the discussion at the table revolves largely around rolling back mandatory minimums so that judges and juries, rather than prosecutors, have more discretion in sentencing.
He said it is becoming clearer to many citizens and government leaders that “one-size-fits-all sentencing is not working as intended.
Bonham said smarter sentencing that better protects public safety needs to be fair, proportionate, compassionate and reflect the complexity of each situation.
“Tough on crime” laws from the 1990s have caused incarceration rate to climb drastically. Oregon now ranks near the top in terms of prison population growth. There are now nearly 15,000 inmates in 14 prisons and Oregon is one of four states that spend more on corrections than they do on higher education.
However, 55 percent of inmates released from Oregon prisons commit a new felony offense within three years, which shows that the current system is not working well, said Bonham.
He said smart sentencing possibilities need to be given careful examination before the work group attempts to legislate a fix.
What has become his passion, one he has challenged the work group to address, is helping children succeed in school and life so there is less possibility they will make choices that land them behind bars.
“I need to restart the conversations and talk about how we fix these problems before individuals get lost in the criminal justice system,” said Bonham.
“We need to attack poverty and do more for early childhood development and job training. It’s not an easy topic, but it seems very unfair that a person’s future can be determined by who they are born to.
“If they are born into a family with money they will have all kinds of opportunities to succeed and if their family is poor, they can have a tough time just getting the basics. Children with learning disabilities, families trapped in cyclical abuse, or neglect, need the opportunity to escape the school to prison pipeline and break the cycle.
“We need to make sure they can provide for themselves when they grow up. To get there, we need to provide some resources — I really think this is a higher responsibility.”
What is discouraging to Bonham is the belief that finding more resources to benefit future generations is becoming more difficult by the year in a state where red tape and heavy taxation makes it difficult for small businesses to thrive or even survive.
“I am a fiscal conservative, and it seems like Salem is continually coming up with new ways to tax society,” he said.
Oregon has the 16th highest tax burden in the country, which Bonham said already makes it difficult for many struggling families to succeed.
Entrepreneurs that provide needed jobs face a daunting task to overcome high taxes and high real estate costs — commercial rentals or purchases — due to an exploding population.
When businesses have to tighten their belts to overcome financial challenges, Bonham said consumers pay more at the checkout line and less family-wage jobs are available.
He said what the state can do to lessen the burden on private enterprise, which pays the cost of essential services, is curb regulations and refrain from undue taxation.
“But that’s not how things are playing out in Salem,” said Bonham. “We have record revenue coming in, and Democrats are still looking for ways to impose new taxes. This state has a spending problem and there doesn’t seem to be any will to address it.”
In May, Bonham joined Republicans in criticizing Gov. Kate Brown for calling an emergency special session in what they believed was an attempt to repair the political damage done by passage of Senate Bill 1528 in February. It wasn’t that expanding a business tax break approved in 2013 was a bad idea, he said. It was that far fewer businesses would benefit than those who would have gained from a new 20 percent deduction in federal taxes that was eliminated in February.
“This last one-day session was really just a waste of time. It was policy for politics sake,” said Bonham. He said Brown’s proposal, which was approved by the Democratic-controlled House and Senate expanded a 2013 tax break to apply to about 9,000 higher income tax filers.
About 75 percent of the $11 million annual tax cut goes to sole proprietors who earn at least $200,000 a year.
Meanwhile, he said federal tax relief was denied to about 200,000 pass-through entities — S Corps, partnerships and limited liability corporations — that have income taxed at the individual owners’ level instead of the corporate level. That reduces the effects of double taxation.
Democrats argued that many pass-throughs in Oregon already get a state tax deduction, and it would be unfair to allow them to “double dip.”
They estimated that well over $1 billion in new taxes would be generated for the state over six years by disconnecting from the federal code.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Revenue Office, SB 1528 raises $244.4 million in the current biennium, $376.7 million in 2019-21 and $427.4 million in 2021-23.
The U.S. Small Business Administration reports that Oregon is home to more than 350,000 small businesses — accounting for 99.4 percent of all enterprises — that employ more than half of the state’s private sector workforce.
“If we really want to do something for our businesses, we need to throw out the $1 billion in new taxes on the small mom-and-pop employers through our community,” Bonham said.