Merkley tackles myriad topics during Coos County town hall

MYRTLE POINT — U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley dug into a diverse plate of topics for breakfast Friday morning.

In the course of holding town halls all over the state this week, Oregon’s junior Democratic senator made his way to the Myrtle Point High School cafeteria, where he was greeted by a room full of interested residents and students with questions that included student debt and the fiasco in Burns.

The first honors went to Myrtle Point High School student Ireland Tall Hunter, who inquired about how taking in Syrian refugees would impact Oregon, a topic which Merkley said had not been brought up in any of the town hall meetings.

“There was a lot of concern as to whether Syrian refugees might be a source in which terrorists may seek to enter the country,” Merkley said. “That produced a lot of conversation and an examination of the refugee program, with all the experts basically saying that is the last strategy a terrorist would use.”

It takes two years of vetting to be part of the refugee program, which consists mostly of women and children, Merkley said. He said a couple thousand could potentially make their way here.

“I think back to the words carved into the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give us your tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free,'” Merkley said. “Most of us come from families that came here escaping circumstances, economic circumstances, political circumstances, so those words always touch our hearts.”

Because many students were in attendance, Merkley also spoke about the measures he’s taken to try to lower tuition indebtedness, including lower interest rates.

Tuition costs relative to median income in the United States, Merkley said, are 45 to 50 percent, much higher than in Germany, for example, where it is 4 to 5 percent.

Last summer, Merkley introduced the Access to Fair Financial Options for Repaying Debt (AFFORD) Act, an idea of having a fund that paid college tuition and would be reimbursed based on a percentage of a person’s income of the following years. But it was “too complicated,” said Merkley. Another idea is income adjusted loan repayment, which caps loan repayment at a percentage of discretionary income.

Having cosponsored the Promoting Access and Retention Through New Efforts to Require Shared Higher Investments in Postsecondary Success (PARTNERSHIPS) Act with his fellow Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, Merkley said the bill provided an incentive to states to control tuition.

“The idea is that if states put more funds into their public universities and control tuition, then the state would be a 50-50 partner in providing those resources,” Merkley said.

Legislative update

Before taking questions, Merkley gave a legislative update on bills impacting his constituents, beginning with the replacement of No Child Left Behind.

Merkley described it as “kind of a chain of blame system that left a lot of children behind. They created testing that worked in a fashion which took up too much time and energy and delivered too little value to teachers. The list goes on and on.”

Admitting there will be a transition period challenging to the state, he said he thought education officials would look forward to it, given the number of flaws in the previous act.

He spoke of the neglect of transportation infrastructure, as evidenced by previous spending of less than 2 percent of the economy on it, and talked about the passing of a transportation bill, which will pave the way for more long-term projects and ability to address crumbling infrastructure.

“We now have a long-term transportation bill, which has been much needed because without it, we haven’t been able to launch large scale, long-term projects,” Merkley said. “If you think back over time when Eisenhower launched the interstate highway program, we’ve almost always had major projects.”

A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee — the first Oregon senator on the committee since Mark Hatfield — Merkley took aim at the changes to the Forest Service.

With increased costs to fight fires, the Forest Service has had to cut funding to other programs.

“Every time there is a bad fire, the Forest Service exhausts its funds and it shuts down everything else it’s doing,” Merkley said. “Planning for timber sales is shut down, forest health projects get shut down, a really incoherent way to run anything.”

While Forest Service funding is still not quite in line with the FEMA model of funding, Merkley said he was satisfied with changes recently made in the funding model.

“What we won this year was the step towards a model in the way we address the floods, hurricanes, earthquakes,” he said. “And that is funding will be 100 percent of the average firefighting costs for the past 10 years, and, in addition, there is a $600 million buffer.”