For the seventh time since taking office in 2009, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley visited Prineville to answer questions and take input from local constituents.
The event, held on Wednesday afternoon at Meadow Lakes Restaurant, drew a crowd of about 60 local citizens and government leaders. Merkley kicked off the forum by giving recognition to The Landing, a local afterschool program. After giving its director, Chad Carpenter, time to talk about the program, Merkley presented him with an American flag flown over the U.S. Capitol Building.
The senator also took the early moments of the forum to single out the Heart of Oregon program in Crook County, and later invited one of its students to ask the first question of the town hall.
Before opening the floor to questions, Merkley spent time highlighting some of the work taking place in the Senate, including updates on the status of the Keystone Pipeline and prevention of a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security.
However, much of his time was spent discussing the recently approved Senate budget.
“The budget is not a bill,” he explained, “but it does lay out divisions for spending bills that will follow. In that regard, I was concerned about the budget that was adopted. I voted against it.”
His primary concern, he said, was the budget provided a large increase for the defense department, but did it off budget under the overseas contingency fund, a fund used to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I don’t think the war should have ever been off budget,” Merkley said, “but putting the defense department off budget as well makes no fiscal sense.”
Merkley went on to express concerns about cuts in the budget that reduce funding for Medicare, food stamps, and Pell grants.
“Pell grants are the core grants that enable our low income students to be able to have a shot at attending college,” he stressed.
Education concerns were later broached when retired local teacher Richard Phay raised concerns about No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Standard. He noted that historically education has tested what was taught, but now educators are teaching to pass a test.
“It is a test that corporations are making, rather than teachers in the classroom,” Phay said. “I personally think there is a drive in this country to privatize public education because there is a lot of money to be made.”
In response, Merkley noted that he served on the Senate’s education committee in 2010, and at that time, he toured the state asking educators about their concerns with teaching to a test.
“What I found was the feedback was remarkably the same in every part of the state,” he said, which prompted him to work toward a replacement to No Child Left Behind that would put an end to high stakes testing.
“If schools are having trouble and need help, they get help rather than being shamed,” he added.
Merkley said that bill lacked support in the House and Senate and never passed either chamber. However, he said that lawmakers have created a new bill that is nearing completion that would similarly serve as a replacement to No Child Left Behind.
Later in the forum, local resident Charles Boyd engaged Merkley on immigration reform.
“We have had a broken immigration system for decades,” the senator responded. “It’s broken in terms of folks overstaying visas, it has been broken in terms of boundaries, and it has been broken in terms of checking to see if folks have legal status at the point of employment.”
Merkley pointed out that four Democrats and four Republicans in Congress teamed up to develop legislation that would vastly improve border security, create a computer system to track people who have overstayed their visas and improve the e-verify system for employment.
“The bill had broad bipartisan support,” he said. “It would have passed overwhelmingly in the House if it had been put up for a vote. It wasn’t, so we still have the broken system.”
In closing, Merkley thanked the audience for participating in the forum, and said that he learns a lot from the sessions and gains new connections.
“Most senators don’t hold town halls,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing the job without them.”