Marion County residents quiz U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley during town hall

Marion County residents brought their concerns about mental
health funding, the war in Ukraine and catalytic converters to U.S. Sen. Jeff
Merkley’s town hall in Salem on Monday, Feb. 6.

It was the senator’s 15th town hall this year, and his 519th
town hall since taking office in 2009. Merkley and U.S. Sen. Ron
 visit Oregon’s 36 counties annually. Merkley also had a town
hall in Polk County Monday afternoon.

Before the event, Merkley told Salem Reporter that aside
from some people with conspiracy theories, most of the town halls brought up
questions he had anticipated.

“The top issue for people is housing, and just feeling like while
wages have gone up, they haven’t gone up as fast as gas and housing have, and
feeling pretty stretched,” Merkley said.

He said housing was already a top concern for him, and he is
planning a strategy called the End
Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act
, which would fine hedge funds a
$20,000 tax penalty for each additional home they bought beyond 100 properties.

“Because houses should be homes for families, not this
profit center for Wall Street,” he said.

Before the town hall, Merkley held a private meeting with
local elected officials, including Salem Mayor Chris Hoy. 

Hoy told Salem Reporter that he brought up federal Community Development Block
 funding for the city, which supports infrastructure and economic
development, including housing.

“The flexibility we had during Covid is going away. And it
really helps us address homelessness,” Hoy said. He brought up the same topic
to Marcia Fudge, secretary of housing and urban development during his
trip to Washington D.C. in December

The town hall started at 10 a.m. at the Chemeketa Community
College auditorium, and lasted an hour. 

Merkley stood in front of the stage, facing around 100

He opened the meeting by awarding a U.S. flag to John Burt
of Farmers Ending Hunger,
a group that distributes donations from Oregon producers. Burt gave the senator
a Pendleton Round-Up bandanna that said “buck hunger.”

Attendees were given the chance to ask the senator a
question via a raffle number, drawn by Hoy. Their questions spanned topics
including mental health, catalytic converters and the war in Ukraine.

One Salem resident asked about funding for mental health
care, and said there is a shortage of psychiatric treatment beds in the area.
She said people with mental health issues are too often jailed rather than

Merkley said that he agreed with her. He added that
his Elementary
and Secondary School Counseling Act
 would fund additional mental
health counselors at public schools. He said more federal and state funding is
needed to address the wider issue, especially pertaining to people who are

Merkley frequently polled the room by show of hand. Most
wanted the U.S. to continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. 

“I think that we have to stand with republics against that
type of autocracy, dictator, authoritarian force,” Merkley said. 

He said he supports providing weapons for Ukranians to
defend themselves, like tanks, but not weapons that would cross the border to
Russia, the same line that the Biden Administration has drawn.

Merkley also said that he has been proposing to the
administration that Biden create a ‘no first use’ policy regarding nuclear
weapons, and ask other nations to join in. 

Another resident asked Merkley about gun control. Merkley
brought up the “modest” legislation that passed Congress last year, which
closed the “boyfriend loophole.” That provision prevents people convicted of
domestic abuse from purchasing firearms regardless of marital status, and added
more information to federal databases for background checks.

“I don’t see the federal movement going any further about
that. We’re very divided about what’s workable on gun safety,” he said.

Merkley also said that he’s been “disturbed” by actions from
the U.S. Supreme Court and is backing a reform to have a certain number of
senior Supreme Court Justices rotated out with new presidential
administrations. He has previously released statements condemning the court’s
actions on climate
 and restricting
abortion access

A resident of Aurora asked about the cost of living for
seniors outpacing Social Security payments. Merkley said he wants to prevent
further cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and that funding should come from
income taxes on wealthy people.

Another resident asked the senator about catalytic converter
thefts, and said that he “can’t overstate” the number of his friends who have
had them stolen.

Merkley recalled when his pickup truck was stolen in the
early 90s, and how he had to pay $150 to get it back from where it had been
towed. He asked the audience if anyone knew of any solutions.

Hoy said shops will install a guard on the bottom of the car
that makes it difficult to steal, and that legislators can make the trade of
stolen parts a more serious criminal offense. 

“Ya’ll don’t want to hear this, but consider driving an
electric car,” Merkley said, and the room broke into laughter and cheers.

A resident in the audience asked about a federal policy
requiring manufacturers to install the guards on new vehicles. Merkley said
that was a good point, and added that this was the first time the topic had
been brought up in a town hall.