John McColgan of Joseph, far left, talks to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Portland), about the difficulty of refinancing his bed and breakfast during Merkley’s visit to the Southfork Grange in Lostine Wednesday afternoon. KATY NESBITT / The Observer
Sen. Jeff Merkley fielded a wide variety of questions at the Southfork Grange in Lostine Wednesday afternoon, everything from banking practices to gas price gouging to federal agencies acquiring private land.
John McColgan of Joseph owns a bed and breakfast with his wife, Pepper. He said they tried to refinance their home, but since it’s used as a business, they weren’t able to get a loan.
“It flies in the face of logic that it counts against you when your home makes money,” said McColgan.
Merkley, who serves on the Senate’s banking committee, said investors are very conservative and lending has swung from outrageously loose to extremely tight.
Jean Falbo, also of Joseph, asked why gas is 20 to 30 cents cheaper in Elgin than it is at any of the Wallowa County stations.
“What is the rationale to charge that much to bring gas into the county? I think it’s price gouging,” said Falbo. “We are a poor county with a struggling population and we are paying more for something so fundamental.”
Merkley said on the world market, demand is down and supply is up, so it doesn’t make sense for gas to be as expensive as it is.
On a local basis, he said he could only explain the high cost of gas being due to lack of competition.
He went on to say that Congress asked the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to set limits on futures to control speculators and they’ve struggled to comply with the request.
Merkley said Congress is also working to eliminate dependence on foreign oil.
Ramona Philips, a rancher whose cattle graze on private land outside of Joseph, said she wanted to remind the senator of the ongoing wolf and livestock interaction in Wallowa County.
“We’ve spent $10,000 dealing with wolves and haven’t even lost a calf,” said Philips.
The senator was thanked for his help keeping the Imnaha post office open. Though the amendment Merkley championed would keep post offices more than 10 miles away from one another open, Merkley said it has not passed the House. He said he believes that the post master general now understands the importance of rural post offices.
Annette Aschenbrenner told Merkley that she was opposed to the federal government buying private land with Land and Water Conservation Fund money. She said the U.S. Forest Service already manages land comprising 51 percent of Wallowa County.
“I have a problem with government agencies’ ability to acquire private land when they can’t take care of what they have,” said Aschenbrenner.
Wallowa Whitman National Forest Supervisor Monica Schwalbach attended the town hall and was available to field question afterward. The forest’s Travel Management Plan was withdrawn in April, quelling, for the time being, outrage at the proposed closure of more than 3,800 miles of roads.
Alan Fambrini of the Wallowa County Occupy movement asked what Congress could do in regards to the Citizens United law confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court that allows corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to political action committees with no disclosure.
Merkley said when a corporation spends millions of dollars on television advertising, it is like using a stadium-size sound system to drown out the voice of the people and real issues.
“What are the first three words of the Constitution?” Merkley asked the nearly 50 people gathered. “We the people,” he said. “It’s the heart of what we’re all about.”
One method of restricting the law, said Merkley, is for Congress to pass a disclosure act forcing corporations to be transparent about their donations.