About 75 Hughson residents and local dignitaries gathered at Hughson High's Reeder Hall Wednesday night to get up-close and personal with U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R - Atwater), State Sen.Tom Berryhill (R - Modesto) and State Assemblywoman Kristen Olsen (R – Modesto).
The three were joined by County Supervisor and event organizer Vito Chiesa, who planned the town hall event as an opportunity for citizens to ask their elected officials questions – and for the elected officials to hear what their constituents had to say about issues affecting their lives.
“It's a great opportunity to just listen to you, to hear from you what your concerns are, and to know what I can take back to Washington D.C. and work on for you,” Denham said.
The event, termed Hughson Government Night, followed in the mold of Chiesa’s earlier Turlock Government Night, held in February at Turlock’s War Memorial. That event hosted Denham, Chiesa, State Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) and State Assemblyman Bill Berryhill (R-Ceres) – along with more than 300 voters.
Each official provided a brief opening statement, and then questions were taken from the audience for about 45 minutes. Conversation at the Hughson event centered in large part on the ongoing budget woes at the state, local and federal level.
Berryhill, a member of the so-called GOP5 group negotiating with Gov. Jerry Brown on the state budget, didn't blame Brown for the budget impasse. He said Brown had agreed, in principle, to pension and regulatory reform, and a hard spending cap.
“If it was just the Governor, we would have a deal here today,” Berryhill said.
But, once the final language of the agreement was returned to them, all the details were watered down from their previous agreement, Berryhill said. He said the GOP5 later found out labor had been consulted on the agreement, and had demanded substantive changes which would have made the reforms symbolic only.
“If this budget crashes and burns, you're going to see prisoners released, you're going to see police laid off … all of it's going to go away,” Berryhill said. “I kept thinking these guys are going to sober up in a couple days and realize they're not going to have a job.”
Despite the disagreements, Berryhill projected a budget would be finalized by 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday “for better or worse” as legislators' pay will be frozen from that point until a budget is passed.
Denham, a freshman U.S. Representative, spoke about his efforts to cut the federal budget, eliminate earmarks and eliminate special committee funds. He referenced the $120 billion cut approved by the House of Representatives this year, eventually argued down to $79 billion by the U.S. Senate but still the largest in the nation's history.
“As we all recognized, it wasn't even scratching the surface,” Denham said.
Denham also discussed his surprising four committee appointments in Washington, D.C.; most U.S. Representatives serve on just two committees.
Denham first joined the Natural Resources Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, due to his desire to build water storage and conveyance, he said. As a veteran, he asked for an exemption to join a third committee – the Veterans Affairs Committee.
And then he asked for another exemption, to chair the Committee on Economic Development, FEMA, and Public Properties, despite being told “freshmen just don't chair committees.” As part of balancing the budget, Denham hopes to stimulate new jobs with small business microloans, and to relieve some of the nation's debt burden by selling the 14,000 excess or surplus properties owned by the Federal Government.
Olsen, also a freshman representative, spoke of her own “interesting” experiences in Sacramento. She said that longtime legislators have tried to indoctrinate her into Sacramento culture, but that she's not giving up her local “hat” – advocate for the interests of her constituency – to join Sacramento insiders.
“I came here to wear those hats,” Olsen said. “The day I take off those hats is the day my voters need to send me home.”
Olsen also spoke about the budget, which she said needs structural reforms to improve the longterm fiscal health of the state.
“At the end of the day, we have to start to prioritize,” Olsen said. “If we have $10, we have $10, and we can't stretch it to $15. In California, we've been stretching it to $15 for the last decade.”
California must focus on creating jobs and avoiding budget tricks, Olsen said. She advocated the state balance the budget without raising taxes, and not rely on a ballot tax proposal, as “not a single poll sees the measure passing.”
“If those taxes fail and we don't have a plan, then we're really going to get ourselves into trouble,” she said.
Olsen said she's working as part of a new Sunset Review Committee, which will conduct a regular review of the 550 state agencies, boards and commissions – “an outrageous number” in Olsen's words. The committee will either renew agencies, recommend changes to make them more efficient, or abolish them; a similar practice in Texas has resulted in major cost savings.
Discussion at Hughson Government Night also broached the topics of new taxes, energy policy, avoiding impacts to social programs, Wall Street reform and illegal immigration. But most important, Chiesa said, was that all levels of government gathered in one place Wednesday night, for a single purpose.
“We can come together,” Chiesa said. “That's what my intent is here tonight; to show you we can come together as a group.”
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