Senator Jeff Merkley holds townhall in Arlington

Times Journal

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley swept through Eastern Oregon on a three-day tour, holding townhalls in nine counties.

Starting on Friday, May 17, Oregon’s junior Senator started his townhall tour in Malheur County, and then went to Harney, and Grant County. On Saturday, Merkley held townhalls in Baker County, Union County, and Wallowa County. On Sunday, he met with constituents in Umatilla County, Morrow County, and in Gilliam County.

At the Gronquist Building in Arlington, sixteen people gathered to meet with Senator Merkley.

Arlington School Superintendent Larry Johnson introduced Sen. Merkley, who began the meeting by recognizing a local group that has impacted the county. Senator Merkley recognized the Condon Arts Council for bringing positive change.

This year, Senator Merkley’s office helped the Condon Arts Council to secure federal-direct-spending through the US Department of Agriculture. The $250,000 funding package will support the restoration of the Historic Liberty Theatre in Condon.

In attendance from the Condon Arts Council was board President Margaret Takagi, who received the flag and gave an overview of the organization and its objectives.

Founded in 2021, the Condon Arts Council is a nonprofit organization that has brought arts programming to youth, working adults, and seniors in the Condon area. It has also found ways to engage people in neighboring communities and counties – with programming and events that encourage arts and culture.

Senator Merkley then opened up the floor for discussion, saying that he and Senator Wyden are likely the only senators to have an open dialogue with constituents. Merkley called this the “Oregon Way,” saying people might have differing opinions in Oregon, but that respect and courtesy help to guide townhalls in the state.

The Senator heard from Skye Krebs, a cattle and sheep rancher and landowner in Gilliam County and in Wallowa County. Krebs pushed the Senator to advocate for the removal of the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act. While wolves have not caused documented livestock depredations in Gilliam County, there has been growing concern of the predators in Oregon.

Last month, ODFW released its 2023 annual report and found that gray wolves have not grown in population in the past year, but that livestock depredations increased significantly.

Merkley said that wolves that are east of Highway 395 are now delisted from the federal Endangered Species Act, meaning that the state is in charge. Landowners can shoot gray wolves east of Highway 395. Merkley believes that the wolf will continue to grow in population west of 395 and will also be delisted – but he said that he understood the concern and had heard about wolves in every townhall in this trip.

Merkley also heard from Haylee Potter, the Executive Director of the Condon Early Learning Center.

Potter asked Senator Merkley if there is an effort in the Senate to improve funding for early childhood education. Merkley said that there has been a growing bipartisan effort to improve access to childcare but that early education funding has been limited in Congress due to the nation’s growing debt.

Potter’s fiancé, and teacher at Wheeler High School, James Andrews, shared a story of students who were pessimistic about home ownership in the future. Merkley shared that owning a home and achieving the American Dream has become illusive to young Americans, causing apathy and skepticism of the future. The Senator shared that owning a home as a blue collar American has become very difficult.

However, he did talk about the need to regulate the housing market and to build more starter homes for first time homeowners.

Senator Merkley has sponsored the Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act with Washington Representative Adam Smith. Together, they found that hedge funds have been buying unprecedented amounts of homes and real estate across the United States. It is estimated that hedge funds own nearly 575,000 single family homes – driving prices up and homeownership for young people down.

Looking to the future, Merkley said that finding education that meets the needs of the future is essential for young people. Superintendent Larry Johnson spoke about the Arlington school’s push to educate students about education after high school.

The Arlington school has held week-long culinary classes with people in the industry, heating and electrical seminars, and construction and trades sessions. Johnson said that recently, a group visited a beautician school and that students also participated in career trips to Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles.

Senator Merkley said that such efforts would be central to the state’s future and he was encouraged by questions about the next generation.