MEDFORD — State Sen. Alan Bates said Sunday that the budget crisis facing Oregon dwarfs all the other issues the Legislature is dealing with in Salem.

MEDFORD — State Sen. Alan Bates said Sunday that the budget crisis facing Oregon dwarfs all the other issues the Legislature is dealing with in Salem.

In a town hall meeting in Medford, the Ashland Democrat said tax increases on items such as cigarettes, beer and wine that are being discussed in Salem won't come anywhere near filling a $4-plus-billion hole in the state's roughly $16 billion budget for the next two years.

Bates said job losses mean less income for state government because the primary source of state revenue is the income tax. At the same time, there's more demand for state social and human services as people out of work seek help.

"A lot of people who have never turned to government for help before are now turning to the state for help," he said to a crowd of about 40 people at the Higher Education Center. "One in four people in Jefferson County is on food stamps. There's been a 30 percent increase in (requests statewide for) food stamps."

Bates said the Legislature's proposed budget for the next biennium is likely to lay out the cuts in programs and services that would be needed to make up the shortfall.

"The choice we're going to have to make then is to make those cuts or raise revenue," he said.

Bates said a surtax on incomes like the one that was imposed briefly during the recession at the beginning of the 1980s was unlikely, but legislators are talking about reducing deductions on state income tax by about 10 percent to raise an additional $1 billion.

Increasing the tax rate for people with incomes ranging from $125,000 to $150,000 also is a possibility, Bates said.

"I really do believe we are our brother's keeper," he said. "Stepping up and paying an extra 1 percent is surely something we can do."

Bates said an increase in the minimum corporate tax was likely, because the current $10 minimum has not changed since 1932.

"We think it might be time for a little change," he quipped, but turning serious, he said "The question is how we deal with it.

"We've got to put the tax together in a way that doesn't hurt businesses. The last thing we want to do right now is hurt businesses."

Bates fielded questions on issues ranging from minimum sentences for certain crimes to fluoridating water supplies.

On fluoridation, Bates said scientific research has failed to show any solid evidence that fluoride added to drinking water helps with teeth, that he opposes fluoridating water supplies, and that a bill to require fluoridation is unlikely to go anywhere in this session. (Correction: See below)

On sentencing criminals, Bates said the time has come to have a discussion about the minimum sentences that were imposed when voters approved Ballot Measure 11 in 1994

"People are now locked up for 10 or 15 years for minor crimes at our expense, and they don't need to be there that long," he said.

He noted that Ballot Measure 57, approved by voters in 2008, increased sentences for another group of crimes, and it could have serious consequences for the state.

"Oregon is going to become very quickly the No. 1 state for incarceration if we don't slow this down," he said.

No one questioned Bates about his support for HB 2701, which would prohibit cities that use red-light cameras at intersections from providing compensation to manufacturers and vendors of those cameras. Medford police have said the bill would effectively end their photo enforcement.

Shawna Dye of Medford asked Bates what Southern Oregonians can do to help our economy.

"One of the most important things we can do is not be all gloom and doom," Bates said. "We're going to get through this."

Bates has scheduled another town hall meeting for this evening in Ashland from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Ashland Elks Lodge, 225 E. Main St.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify Sen. Alan Bates' position on fluoridating drinking water supplies.