Merkley talks disaster relief and trade during Round-Up visit

UMATILLA COUNTY — Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden announced this week that $150 million is available to certain counties hit by severe winter storms and flooding this year, including Umatilla County.

During a visit to the Pendleton Round-Up on Friday, Merkley told the Este de Oregón that he didn’t know exactly how much of that money would end up being awarded to Oregon projects, but municipalities, nonprofits and tribal nations could turn in grant applications for everything from topsoil being washed away to damaged buildings and roads. He said he and Wyden would send letters of support for recovery projects in Oregon.

The money now available is combined with other provisions Merkley pushed to have included in a $19.1 billion bipartisan disaster relief package passed by Congress, including financial relief for wineries and hazelnut growers severely impacted by the heavy wildfire smoke of 2018.

“This is part of an ongoing view from the front row as the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Agriculture and Rural Development Committee,” he said.

While spring flooding damaged parts of rural Oregon, wildfire season was more mild than in 2018. Merkley said it was important to put money toward preventative measures.

This week he announced the Senate Appropriations Committee had included $8.5 million in the Department of Defense appropriations bill for training National Guard members to fight wildfires. That was a $1.5 million increase from the first two years he helped secure that funding.

“I think it’s now pretty well established as a regular thing,” he said.

In addition to worries about weather damage, Merkley said he also knows farmers are worried about the effects of the Trump administration’s trade war. He said they are right to be worried, because there “doesn’t seem to be a real strategy” to how tariffs are applied.

“The thing that bothers me is the lack of a cohesive plan,” he said.

Merkley said the United States does have a huge trade deficit with China on manufacturing, but the administration needs to separate out manufacturing and agricultural trade when developing a strategy.

He said even if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, it will take time to repair some of the interruptions to trade relationships and reassure buyers.

Merkley said one bright spot for Oregon farmers seems to be the ability to now grow hemp legally. He said there would likely be some “ups and downs” as the hemp market stabilizes, but it is possible hemp will be a billion-dollar crop for Oregon this year.

“I see a long-term future for hemp,” he said.

Tackling another popular topic in the country right now, Merkley said the Senate needs to continue to find ways to tackle the country’s drug addiction epidemic, from opioids to methamphetamines.

“We still don’t have enough money to address addiction that exists now, and to prevent future addiction,” he said.

He said companies that sold opioids under false pretenses about the true potential for addiction needed to be held accountable for helping pay to clean up the damage they caused.