Merkley answers local, national concerns at Umatilla County town hall

Este de Oregón

MISSION — While the Sunday, May 19, town hall at the Nixyaawii Governance Center on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation was No. 563 for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, the questions he heard from the audience were concerning to people now.

The junior senator from Oregon makes a point to cross his home state every year to listen to residents, from the eastern border to where the continent meets the Pacific Ocean.

Town halls are important for engaging with the state he represents, Merkley told the audience, noting he and Oregon’s senior senator, Ron Wyden, are “really the only senators in the U.S. who hold town halls like this in America,” thanks to heightened tension around such events.

The queries for the hour-long gathering were wide ranging, from environmental issues to mental health care in Oregon. From food safety to the strength of the Democratic Party to the water and land in crisis.

Among those asking questions were junior and senior CTUIR’s youth council members.

Awna’ee “Katty” Najera, 12, told Merkley she comes from the foster care system, due to addiction issues in others. What is the senator doing to address alcohol and drug use and treatment in middle- and high-school students, Katty asked.

That’s an important issue, Merkley said, “because the foundation for families to thrive is often disrupted by drugs and alcohol.”

There is a lack of facilities in Oregon to help people escape those addictions, as well as for behavioral health care, he said.

He’s supportive of funding for more counselors in schools to assist students struggling in their own lives or because of a problem within their families, Merkley said.

The same goes for more funding to treat addiction and behavioral health challenges nationwide, which means more for Oregon, too. The state’s Legislature also is engaged with looking for answers, but a shortage of 30,000 substance-use councilors by the end of decade is predicted. “So that’s not good,” he noted.

Skeptical of Democrats

La Grande resident and wildland firefighter David Soderberg told Merkely he’d never voted for a Democrat before “but I enjoyed voting for you.” However he’s unlikely to vote for a Democrat again, including Merkley; at a party level “the great ideas you bring to the table just aren’t going to go anywhere, such as your current housing bill,” he said.

Soderberg was referencing the “End Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act,” which Merkley introduced in the Senate and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state introduced in the House. The proposed legislation seeks to force large corporate owners to divest holdings in single-family housing to allow more opportunities for families to buy homes.

“The party doesn’t back candidates such as yourself when the rubber meets the road,” Soderberg said. “Can you convince me supporting candidates such as yourself and Wyden is actually a fruitful venture and is actually going to go forth?”

He tries to keep his town halls nonpartisan, Merkley told Soderberg, but he is working to bring change to the Senate that allows a return of government by and for the people, not by and for whomever is the most powerful — including lobbyists, he said.

The current model, Merkley said later, encourages paralysis.

The senator said he knew it would be hard to drive the housing bill forward, but he has to try.

“But nobody was talking about hedge funds when I raised this issue three years ago,” he said, noting the problem is now getting media attention.

“I understand your frustration and, really, the broken system is producing a lot of cynicism … It’s like ‘Well, gotta stay in the fight. Gotta keep working for it,’” Merkley said, listing “the dark money in campaigns” in his examples of needed reforms.

‘To be kind’

Student Luka Worden asked the senator what role his office has in bringing attention to mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

She has seen peers go through things, Luka said, and she wants to find ways to change negative self talk and thoughts. “And trying to spread the word about being nice to people, and to be kind,” she said.

“Can we just have more kindness,” Merkley echoed.

In suicide prevention work, it is important youths can go both to people they know and to trained counselors, he said, noting when he was growing up an insult couldn’t be posted to social media to embarrass him in front of all of his friends.

Lines for Life, a suicide hotline, is being funded for expansion and to strengthen its youth component, “so that’s another possibility” along with counselors and elders within a youth’s own community, Merkley said.

Water and land in crisis

Sunhawk Thomas, a senior at Pendleton High School and part of the tribal youth council, asked the senator to address “the crisis of water and land.”

Those are broad topics, Merkley said, and listed work the tribal community is working on, including a water rights settlement to enable water to be available for irrigation, ranching and farming.

Another piece is to address the salmon crisis on the Columbia River with an initiative to make the current system on the Columbia work better for the fish and the ecosystem. The initiative would also investigate issues surrounding potentially removing the Snake River dams, “and see if that’s a possibility given the important role those dams play currently in hydropower, irrigation, flood control and so forth,” Merkley said.

Water issues are not new to Oregon, he pointed out.

“There was a phrase I heard growing up in Douglas County I never really understood until I served on the water committee, And it was ‘whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.’ And how important water is to everything we do and therefore requires a lot of consultation, collaboration among all the stakeholders who depend on that water.”

Need new model for rent vouchers

One of the last questions of this town hall came from a young man who told Merkley that while it is exciting wages are going up, so are costs. Families are starting to make more money, he said, but that’s causing a loss of housing vouchers and food benefits. Wages, he said, aren’t bridging the gap.

“Point taken,” Merkley said, adding the issues he hears most about are groceries, fuel, medications and housing.

Federal statistics say inflation is coming down year over year, but still isn’t adjusted to the level prices got to, he said.

“It’s still just kind of shocking,” the senator said, rolling out an anecdote about buying a couple of gallons of paint recently.

“I didn’t ask how much they were before I checked out at the counter and when they told me how much I owed them, my jaw dropped. So I will always ask now beforehand,” Merkley said as his audience chuckled in appreciation.

“So your point is valid that wages are rising, but that doesn’t feel like a path to prosperity when everything else has gotten so expensive,” he said.

A problem with rental vouchers is those typically only cover rent to a certain level. When he recently tried an experiment to see if he could find an apartment within that set price range, he failed, Merkley noted.

In real cases, the rental voucher goes unused and the family goes without the help.

Nationally, everyone needs a new strategy to recalculate rental voucher limits, he added.

Call for more public out reach

As he ended the noontime town hall, Merkley noted there are many challenges for America’s families, farmers and the environment.

“There’s lots of things to work on. The advantage of a republic is that citizens have the chance to raise their voices and say ‘More action is needed’ or to elect individuals who they feel will advocate for the action that’s needed. Citizen engagement is essential, it’s why I really appreciate all of you being here and being engaged,” Merkley said.

Cynicism and skepticism among people is justified, which is why reform of the system is so needed, he added.

“One thing I would love to see is a situation where every senator, every member of the House was holding town halls like this across America. I think it would help people work together to solve the real issues that our communities are facing,” Merkley said.

The senator and his entourage then left for Boardman for his Morrow County town hall.