March 18, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

The conversation Saturday afternoon between U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and the more than three dozen people who came to the Union County Senior Center ranged widely.

From Social Securitys future to worries about energy costs to pleas for a change in timber management, the topics moved back and forth from international issues of trade to tightly focused Northeast Oregon concerns.

Throughout the discussion, Wyden, D-Ore., stressed local decision-making.

I hope youll go home and say this is the way its supposed to be, Wyden said at the end of his hour-and-a-half town meeting. On my watch, this is how Im going to do it ... at the grassroots level.

Wyden made no prepared speech to his mostly senior audience. He called his visit a time for you all to educate me.

A discussion of Amtrak brought out intense feelings from people who said the passenger service needs to be restored through Eastern Oregon.

Wyden agreed that train service is important but shaped his answer with a cautionary tone. Amtrak, he said, is approaching Congress with a national renovation program, but not one that necessarily means renewed service here.

I have told Amtrak (officials in Washington) that I wont support their big program unless they support Eastern Oregon, Wyden said. Ive told them I wont let them turn Eastern Oregon into a sacrifice zone.

Getting rid of the Pioneer was a political move, he added, and other routes in the eastern part of the country with less ridership were kept running.

Wyden said that he and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., have put together a bipartisan program in recent weeks involving issues affecting Oregon. In that program, transportation is primary, Wyden said, especially in light of balancing the needs of rural and urban areas.

I dont want rural communities to get left behind.

Wyden seemed to surprise some when he said that he believes Social Security is solid and strong enough to allow some cuts in the payroll taxes to help those still working.

The issue, he said, is that the government cant turn to Social Security surpluses, as it has in the past, to pay for other programs.

Key to the solidity of the program is getting the budget package right this time. If Congress doesnt get a budget and a tax plan done right, Wyden warned, we could have a calamitous situation.

Wyden said he wants to see more study into creating a national system of a public-employee-type retirement safety net that would allow people to contribute to a fund at either a basic level, or to invest extra money during their working years for a higher return after retirement.

President Bushs proposed tax cut brought a number of thoughts from Wyden.

He said that a $5 billion tax cut may sound huge, but considering the countrys $10 trillion budget, it isnt as large as it sounds.

The plan needs to be more immediate than Bushs plan, which phases in many of the tax-cut effects over several years, he said.

Id like to see the tax cut retroactive to Jan. 1, he said.

He also supports a cut in estate taxes to help younger people continue family farming. To a question about the energy situation, Wyden took a home-boy stance.

Oregon has been more than a good neighbor to California, the senator said. California owes us.

There have been congressional fights between Oregons senators and Californias over energy and repayment, Wyden said, but energy pricing, payment caps and resolving the energy distribution crisis is a very complex issue.

Wyden said he hopes Congress will come up with a short-term patch for the energy situation that allows the nation to plan a long-term strategy.

Regarding local timber sales, Wyden pushed his belief that more of the decisions on forest and land management must be removed from Washington and given back to regional decision-makers.

Other topics addressed included:

Roadless areas: Weve got to let the stakeholders come up with practical solutions rather than having people 3,000 miles away say its a one-size-fits-all situation.

International trade: We dont want to run around the world telling others what to do ... but when they want stuff from us, fine, lets use the influence were got to put pressure on them.

The growing income gap: Theres no question the income gap has grown. More telling, though, is that the education and training gap has grown even gaster than the income gap. We have to support training and education programs.