One Republican candidate running to replace state Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, said during a debate Thursday he’d support building a footbridge over the Deschutes River — an idea Whisnant opposed so much that a fellow lawmaker referred to a bill banning a bridge as “Gene Whisnant’s retirement gift.”

Jack Zika, a real estate agent and member of Redmond’s planning commission, said he’d like to see a bridge built. His Republican primary opponent, Bend conservative political activist Ben Schimmoller, said federal law prohibits a footbridge, while Democrats Eileen Kiely and Bill Trumble said they’d like to see discussions about the bridge continue.

“If we had a bridge, it would be better for everybody,” Zika said.

The four candidates running to represent Oregon’s 53rd House District, which contains a small portion of Bend along with Redmond, Sunriver, Tumalo and Deschutes River Woods, also discussed state spending, gun laws and education during a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters and Deschutes Public Library at the library’s east Bend branch.

Schimmoller and Trumble, a Vietnam veteran and retired scientist and university administrator from Redmond, identified the $25 billion Oregon Public Employees Retirement System funding gap as the most pressing issue facing the state.

“It’s an anchor on Oregon’s economy, and if we solve that, we can go forward,” Trumble said.

He plans to close the gap by raising Oregon’s excise tax on glasses of beer and wine, while Kiely, a Navy veteran and semiretired businesswoman and ski instructor, said she’d close it by raising corporate taxes. Schimmoller would support a plan proposed by Sens. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, to reform the way pensions are calculated and move new public employees to a defined-contribution retirement plan. Zika said he favors renegotiating union contracts and moving public employees to defined-contribution plans similar to corporate 401(K)s.

Kiely said the most critical issue facing the region is health care because Central Oregon is below the national average when it comes to employer-provided health insurance.

“A lot of our businesses are hiring people into low-paying jobs that don’t provide coverage,” she said. “We lack the choices, and our premiums are higher than other Oregonians’.”

Kiely and Trumble said they would have voted “in a heartbeat” for a new law that prohibits gun ownership for people convicted of misdemeanor stalking or domestic violence against unmarried partners — referred to by supporters as the “boyfriend loophole.” Whisnant voted against the bill, and Schimmoller and Zika said they would have hesitated to vote for it.

The two Democrats said they’d support further gun control laws in response to concerns about school safety. Trumble favors a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, while Kiely said universal background checks are necessary.

Zika said schools need more mental health counselors to “identify these troubled children before they harm anybody or harm themselves.”

Schimmoller, who said he’s been a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, said he favors making schools safer by limiting entrances or adding security, but not by limiting guns. He said a potential ballot measure that would ban assault weapons and magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds is proof that some people want to confiscate guns from law-abiding gun owners.

“You might not agree with me on this, but there is definitely a movement to come and take our guns,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com

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