Sen. Jeff Merkley talks health care, housing, border security during Baker City town hall

Heraldo de la ciudad de Baker

About 40 people turned out for Sen. Jeff Merkley’s town hall Saturday, May 18, at the Senior Center, and the Democrat senator talked about topics ranging from an ethics code for Supreme Court justices to health care to home ownership to the war in Gaza.

After the event, Merkley visited the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, which reopens May 24 after being closed for more than three years due to the pandemic and, later, a major renovation.

Merkley opened the event by praising the Baker Relief Nursery, which opened in Baker City in the spring of 2021 and addresses challenges facing families.

“They’re tackling this by services that include classrooms, home visits, diaper bank, food pantry, amenities, and really developed this model during the challenging years of COVID,” Merkley said.

The senator presented Baker Relief Nursery officials with an American flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol.

Merkley also invited Rachel Fargo, a 10-year-old student at South Baker Intermediate, to talk about the noise from train whistles passing near the school.

“You don’t want students to be nearly deaf before they get to middle school,” Fargo said. “We’ve been trying for five years to get this quiet zone.”

She referred to the proposal for a quiet zone in which trains would not sound their whistles unless the engineer determined it was necessary. Pendleton and La Grande both have quiet zones.

A Baker City group is striving to raise money for the upgrades to five railroad crossings that would be required. The city is not planning to spend money on those improvements.

“I think we’ve made some progress, and now we need to get the engineering done and go forward,” Merkley said.“Railroads don’t like quiet zones. It takes a lot of community organizing and cooperation, so I’ll support you all any way I can.”

Merkley then fielded questions from the audience.

Supreme Court ethics code

“I’ve been very concerned, when I hear about Supreme Court justices getting $30,000 to $40,000 vacations from people who have issues before the court, are you kidding me?” Merkley said. “The Supreme Court should be the most sensitive to conflict of interest.”

Broadband internet access

In response to a question about the expiration of a federal program helping expand high-speed internet to rural areas, Merkley said he would look into the issue.

“In the infrastructure bill we have a massive amount of resources to expand broadband,” he said.

Cuidado de la salud

Audience members asked about this issue, including federal support since Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Baker City closed its intensive care unit and birthing center in 2023.

“Senator Wyden and I both were working with community leaders to try to keep the delivery unit that St. Alphonsus was dismantling,” Merkley said. “It’s really unacceptable that if the hospital had said a year earlier ‘we’re wrestling with this, help this community work with us to find a solution,’ we’d still have delivery here in Baker.”

Merkley said he supported a bill that requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create an office of rural health.

“That was a small victory to try to strengthen rural health care,” he said.

He said he’a also promoting efforts to expend telehealth, with doctors seeing patients remotely, and boosting the payments to doctors from Medicaid, which he hopes will allow rural medical clinics to expand.

Border security

Merkley said proposed immigration bills have not gained bipartisan support. He hopes that after the presidential election this November, the government will focus on hiring more border agents and improving detection technology to reduce illegal entries, including by people trafficking drugs.


Merkley said he’s optimistic about the prospects.

“We’ve had so many predictions about recession, but so far we’ve been adding about 200,000 jobs a month for the last three and a half years, which is an extraordinarily unusual record of expansion,” he said.

“One of the things that would be helpful would be doing a better job of helping families with day care, the biggest reservoir of individuals who would like to work but who are not working are folks who can’t afford day care,” Merkley said.

He says there’s a bill in the works to support day care expansion, noting that 35 of Oregon’s 36 counties count as day care “deserts,” with more demand than supply.

Forest Plan revision

Merkley responded to questions regarding the U.S. Forest Service’s ongoing work to adopt new long-term management plans for the three national forests in the Blue Mountains — Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur.

Among the concerns some residents have expressed is a preliminary document that shows areas that could potentially be candidates for wilderness designation.

Merkley noted that only Congress can declare wilderness areas — the Forest Service can’t do so through the forest plan.

“I know it’s going to be a long dialogue,” Merkley said. “I’ve discovered that any plan related to our national forest is a lightning rod, but there are seven different steps in the process that the public can weigh in.”


Merkley discussed a variety of issues related to the housing crisis, including ideas such as a universal basic income, as well as legislation to curb predatory home loans.

Housing was discussed at some length, broaching new strategies like universal income as well as legislation to curb an increasingly predatory home market.

“Home ownership has been the biggest wealth builder for middle class America, and what’s going on right now is that the hedge funds, where millionaires and billionaires put their money and they exercise massive influence in our economy, they discovered that buying up single family housing was a hugely profitable investment,” Merkley said.

“It’s a problem here too, turning them into AirBnB investments, it’s a real issue. I’m proposing that hedge funds have to get out of the housing business. Owning single family homes should be homes for families, not a profit center for wall street hedge funds.

“I’m hoping we get a grassroots momentum to help build the education and the momentum, because right now I’m a voice in the wilderness,” he said.

War in Gaza

In response to a question about the conflict, and the potential for the military draft to return, Merkley said that is highly unlikely.

As for the war in the Middle East, Merkley said “there’s deep, passionate attitudes about the Middle East that can result in antisemitism, that can result in Islamophobia, and we can at least all agree here in Oregon there’s no space for bigoted attacks on other members of our community. If our community members are attacked we should stand with them, arm in arm, and defend them.

“I do disagree strongly profoundly with Netanyahu’s campaign on Gaza, it’s American bombs, 500-pound and 2,000-pound bombs being dropped on highly dense civilian areas, producing now 34,000 or so dead, a third of which are women and children,” Merkley said.