Natural resources dominate town hall

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer February 19, 2014 11:30 am

“We need to spend more on the front end and less on fires on the back end,” Merkley said.

He said recent legislation passed in Washington will help ranchers and small-timber growers deal with recent drought and wildfires. Within the recently passed Farm Bill is compensation for forage lost to wildfires on public and private land and the replacement of fences and livestock. The compensation, Merkley said, is retroactive and will cover losses incurred in the summer of 2012.

Natural resources were on the forefront of the agenda of Sen. Jeff Merkley, D.-Ore., at Tuesday morning’s town hall at the Enterprise School multipurpose room.

During his introduction, Merkley said he is concerned about federal funding going more toward fire suppression than forest health.

Merkley said he has fought against legislation that would have affected people in the flood plain, called “Biggert-Waters,” that would have greatly increased flood insurance premiums. “It was poorly thought through,” Merkley said.

If the act had gone through, Merkley said it would have encumbered property owners from selling their land because new
owners would have not qualified for subsidized flood insurance. 

“Flood insurance would have been many, many times what it has been and reduced property values,” Merkley said. “Why would a business in the flood plain continue to expand if they could never sell?”

Merkley said there continues to be interest in reforming the Equal Access to Justice Act that helps organizations recover legal costs when suing the federal government. However, many of his constituents, he said, believe this act has been misused. He said following the reimbursement money from these lawsuits has not been transparent and the Senate seeks to better understand how it is working and if it works fairly or not.

Forest stewardship agreements that help support timber industry jobs were set to expire, Merkley said. A five-year extension passed a Senate committee and did even better in a conference committee with the House of Representatives. 

“Stewardship agreements are tools used more in Oregon than anywhere else in the country — keeping timber sales out of court,” Merkley said.

Student Katy Birkmaier asked what Merkley thought of Congress’ 12 percent approval rating. 

Merkley said, “What I wonder about is what’s wrong with that 12 percent? Are they not paying attention?”

He said he understands that people are disheartened by Congress’ partisanship and paralysis and its inability to get much done. He said he thinks much of the inaction is due to filibusters.

“When LBJ was the majority leader of the Senate, there was one filibuster. Under Harry Reid there have been 281 filibusters. It’s been a mission of mine to end the abuse of filibusters.”

The Senate recently did pass legislation that reduces the use of filibusters on political appointments, Merkley said.

Jean Falbo of Joseph said, “We in Wallowa County are on a declining income — we have people who don’t have enough to eat, the food bank is short and Congress cut food stamps. Twenty-five percent of our population is 65, people who cannot go back into the work force and if they could, the jobs are not there. We are not doing as well as we should.”

 Merkley said a philosophical debate continues — are people who are working at or near minimum wage with few benefits able to simply work harder to get the income they need? 

“This comes over to unemployment insurance as well,” Merkley said. “We need a longer bridge for families so they don’t end up in foreclosure.”

Hannah Schaafsma asked Merkley, “How do you plan to pursue the Affordable Health Care Act in Oregon?

He said the most discussed concern has been Cover Oregon’s website’s failure. 

“The Cover Oregon website is not working at all and we had to go with paper applications. Eventually that website will get fixed,” Merkley said.

He said two areas that the act are helping Americans are by doing away with insurance companies’ ability to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions or dropping customers after they get sick and not renewing their policies.

“There are elements that work and elements that don’t,” Merkley said.

Patrick Powers asked what is going on at a federal level to improve the education level.  

Merkley said an act that would have helped school funding didn’t make it out of Congress, but Title I, assistance to low-income schools, which he said describes most of Oregon’s schools, with disabilities and Head Start have been maintained for now.

Another area in crisis, he said, is the rising cost of career and college education.

“This is a real concern when the cost of college is outpacing ordinary inflation and the ratio to working salaries is much higher,” Merkley said.

One solution he supports is increasing Pell grants so they keep pace with inflation, offering low-interest direct student loans and encouraging universities to cap and control tuition on state levels.

“You’d think with electronic distance learning, costs should be coming down, not up,” Merkley said.

He said he supports a “Pay it Forward” loan that is tiered to a graduate’s income. As the graduate’s income increases, so will his payments into a fund that will help provide future loans for the next generation. In addition, he said he put forward a federal bill that would create a partnership with four or five states participating in a loan pilot program. 

“Loans are destroying the aspirational goals of our children — if you don’t pursue your dream, you are short-changed.”