Merkley: More must be done to aid students

Sunday July 16, 2023

By: Peter Wong

Portland Tribune

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley got a wide range of questions, as is usual, during a town hall meeting Saturday, July 15, at Centennial High School.

But one question from the audience of more than 100 came from Liam Miller, who will soon start his first year at the school. He said that once he graduates, he is concerned about the high cost of college.

Merkley is a 1974 graduate of David Douglas High School — in an adjoining school district — and his son and daughter also went there as residents of East County. He acknowledged that times are different — and not necessarily for the better.

“When I got out of high school, if you lived in your parents’ house, ate from their refrigerator and worked a minimum-wage job — the minimum wage was $3 (actually $2.30 back then) — you could save enough money to pay tuition for a year at Oregon State University or the University of Oregon. If you worked a job during the school year, you could take care of your housing and food. So the gap was not such a concern.

“More and more jobs take a university education,” he added. “We want our children to aspire to their dreams. The more successful they are, the more they will pay in taxes that will help pay for other services, including affordable education. We need to tackle this on the front end so the next generation is not burdened the way so many people here today are burdened.”

Merkley was the first in his family to go to college. He went to Stanford University, and midway through his four years in 1976, he was an intern for Republican Mark Hatfield — whose Senate seat he holds today as a Democrat.

“You have a great high school and I hope you are thinking about college,” Merkley told Miller. “We are not at the place we want to be where parents are wondering about whether their children should aspire to something that takes a college degree, knowing that they may have a millstone of massive student debt. That is not a country that is doing its best by the next generation.

“I believe this century will belong to the countries that invest more in human and physical infrastructure, including education, not the country that has the most ships and armies. We have to spend a lot more in that regard.”

Status of federal loans

Merkley also explained recent federal developments.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned President Joe Biden’s plan to cancel $10,000 in student loan debt — and up to $20,000 for students who qualified for Pell grants because of their lower family incomes — Biden says he will try again by invoking his authority under a different federal law. The total proposed for loan forgiveness was $400 billion for 38.6 million students earning less than $125,000 annually.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has moved to forgive a total of $39 billion in loans for 800,000 students who made repayments, but because of poor recordkeeping by loan servicers and the federal agency itself, failed to receive credit for them. In February 2022, the agency did so for a total of $415 million for 16,000 students under a concept known as “borrower defense,” which applies when private for-profit institutions are found to have committed fraud. The Supreme Court did uphold Biden’s authority to do so in April.

But Merkley, a former state representative and speaker of the Oregon House, also said part of the responsibility for college costs falls on the Legislature. The recently ended 2023 session did boost state support to the level requested by university presidents to maintain current services for the next two years — and lawmakers did boost money for the Oregon Opportunity Grant by $100 million to around $300 million.

When Merkley was speaker back in 2007, lawmakers also did likewise. But Merkley said voter approval of statewide property tax limits in the 1990s shifted operating costs of public schools onto the state budget — and resulted in less available for spending on universities, community colleges and other services that draw on state aid. For students in higher education, that meant sharp increases in tuition, which now makes up a greater share of university budgets than state aid.

State Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Portland and co-chair of the education budget subcommittee, said: “We have changed the amount of money that is going from the state to the universities in a way that we are going to have to struggle to catch up.”

Miller said afterward he understood the explanations offered by Merkley and Frederick, who also was at the town hall, but remained concerned about the future.

Merkley opened the town hall, his 537th since he was elected to the Senate in 2008, with the presentation of a U.S. flag flown over the Capitol to Mercy M’fon Shammah. She is the executive director of Wild Diversity, a Portland nonprofit that promotes outdoor learning by people of color and others who lack such opportunities.

Other issues

Among other topics raised during the meeting, some of which touch on Merkley’s previous service as president of the World Affairs Council of Oregon, now World Oregon, and his assignment to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

Owyhee Canyonlands: A bill he is cosponsoring with Sen. Ron Wyden to protect 1.1 million acres in southeast Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands as wilderness and 15 miles of the Owyhee River. It is their third attempt, going back to 2019. “It’s not the easiest place to get to, but it’s well worth the journey,” Merkley said. But he added that Wyden, the No. 2 Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is taking the lead — and he expects the bill to be bundled with others that create new wilderness areas in several states.

U.S. aid to the Philippines: Responding to an effort by local activists, Merkley said he would support a cutoff of aid to the Philippine national police, but was cautious about going further. “The police are the biggest factors in the extrajudicial killings under Rodrigo Duterte,” the former president who left office last year. “It’s time to crank that back up. But I do not think ending security assistance to the armed forces has any chance of passing the Senate.”

Merkley said the current president — Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the president who ruled that nation from 1965 until a peaceful revolution against his autocratic rule forced his ouster and exile to Hawaii in 1986 — was “marginally better” than his predecessor. Duterte and Marcos have made overtures to the United States in connection with their dispute of China’s territorial claims over the South China Sea, which borders several other nations.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: Merkley succeeded in 2022 to get the Biden administration to label the displacement of about 1 million people from Burma as genocide. (Merkley resisted the use of Myanmar, the current name for Burma, which is run by a military government that drove the largely Muslim Rohingya out of the country.)

“I am continuing to raise this human rights issue,” said Merkley, who led a congressional delegation to the two countries in 2017, and responded to a question asked by someone from Bangladesh. “On one hand, I feel the Bangladesh government did more than most governments by opening the borders and giving them safe haven. But there also is a lot of resistance within Bangladesh to giving them travel rights and full citizenship — and there is really no prospect for their return home.”

Climate change: Merkley voted with every Senate Democrat for the 2022 bill, which Biden signed, that provides $370 billion in incentives over than next decade for adaptation to climate change and a transition away from fossil fuels to other energy sources. But Merkley also criticized Biden for approval of 1.6 million acres of leases in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling, on top of allowing drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve in the Arctic on Alaska’s North Slope. Both are contrary to Biden’s 2020 pledge not to allow new leases.

“It really isn’t that complicated,” said Merkley, who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Let’s electrify everything with renewable energy. So if we do that, we will save the planet. Here’s to the next generation to fixing all the problems that we haven’t fixed yet.”