Find out why Oregon’s junior Democratic U.S. senator says it’s ‘important to talk’

ONTARIO — About three dozen locals gathered Wednesday at the Veteran’s Memorial Hall as U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., stopped in Ontario during his latest town hall tour.

According to Merkley, he’s been to almost 400 town halls overall.

The community meeting was bookended by Vale High School seniors Grace Jacobs and Isabel Lastiri asking questions to the senator.

Jacobs opened the town hall, asking Merkley how the state government is ensuring that rural communities have equal opportunities economically.

Merkley responded by saying it’s important to make sure rural communities stay connected. This includes keeping rural post offices open and ensuring rural communities have sufficient broadband to support their economy, he said.

The lawmaker is part of an appropriations committee that has a large sum of money that holds undistributed funds that communities can apply for through grants.

“We want those grant funds to go to rural communities,” Merkley said. “Especially when it comes to road infrastructure and bridge infrastructure.”

For the final question of the day, Lastiri asked Merkley about further emphasis state-wide for education.

Merkley brought up how he was involved with starting the robotics program in the Umatilla School District, which he said was helpful in both STEM classes and team building.

“That hands-on STEM learning is valuable,” he said of the chance for students to sharpen their skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

One of the major topics in the town hall was climate change.

Merkley pointed to the recent fire seasons, and a historic drought in the Klamath Basin as proof that things are changing in the climate.

“That’s got to be a warning that we are in trouble,” Merkley said. “And it’s important to talk about the things that we can see and feel.”

The junior senator said it will be important to look at climate change from a “smart business perspective,” noting that wind energy per kilowatt/hour is now cheaper than burning coal. Merkley said if we were to restructure the way we use resources, it could create a lot of jobs as well.

“And we need to make sure the jobs go to where they are most needed,” he said.

Clint Shock, of Ontario, and former director of OSU’s Malheur Experiment Station, mentioned that a combination of a higher temperature and drier air means that local onion growers need more and more water to grow their crops.

“Why don’t we connect the dots?” Shock asked.

When it comes to fighting climate change, Merkley said it’s important to act at many levels.

“Households can reduce their carbon footprint,” he said. “Some businesses are going carbon-neutral. Places of worship, colleges and companies can do that.”

But in terms of lawmaking, Merkley said combating climate change is far more difficult, as Citizens United “spun the constitution on its head.”

“When it comes to wrestling it at the federal level, it’s like the saying from Star Wars, ‘There is a disturbance in the force,’” Merkley said.

Career and technical education was also another point of emphasis Wednesday.

Before taking any questions, Merkley brought Dirk DeBoer of Malheur County Poverty to Prosperity to the podium and mentioned the nonprofit’s efforts to support CTE in the area. Merkley gave DeBoer an American flag which came from the capitol building.

Merkley also brought up the BUILD Act (BUILD stands for Building Understanding, Investment, Learning and Direction), which is an effort to channel available funds to grants which schools can apply for. The money can be used to aid in CTE programs.

Treasure Valley Community College President Dana Young asked Merkley about the possibility of more funding for zero-credit programs.

Merkley said he supports that, and more investment in funds for retraining former inmates so that they can find jobs after release.

There were also several questions that Merkley didn’t have any answers for, at which point he gave out information for follow-up conversations. One question that Merkley didn’t have an answer for was about looking into the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has made it hard for some differently-abled people to find work.