Merkley talks fire costs

Before fielding questions from an audience of about 50 during his town hall Saturday at Haines Elementary School, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., talked about his efforts to change how the country pays to fight wildfires.

Merkley said the U.S. Forest Service has had to halt other projects, including work designed to reduce the risk of fires, because firefighting had depleted the agency’s budget.

“This is just crazy,” Merkley said.

He said big fires should be treated the same as natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

As a member of the Senate appropriations committee, Merkley has made some progress to improve that funding situation.

He said firefighting operations have been funded at 100 percent based on a 10-year average cost.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Merkley said.

The senator also talked about efforts to repair America’s crumbling transportation system.

He said the Senate has passed the FAST Act — Fixing America’s Surface Transportation.

“The Fast Act is a way to say we’ve got a long-term plan for spending on highways and bridges,” Merkley said.

But he said it’s not funded at the level it should be.

Merkley said he has also strived to move educational decisions back to the state rather than the federal level.

Merkley talked about two programs he has initiated that were direct products of input from town hall meetings.

One is a program that provides low-cost loans to homeowners to make energy improvements to their homes that utilize rural electric cooperatives.

Merkley said the benefits are twofold in that the program provides jobs and allows homeowners to easily pay of the loans as they realize energy savings from the improvements to their homes.

“It creates construction jobs in rural America as well as saving energy,” he said.

Another program could be of great benefit to Baker City and other towns in need of money for water and sewer projects, Merkley said.

WIFIA — Water Infrastructure and Innovation Act — establishes a new financing mechanism for water and sewer infrastructure projects. It provides low-interest financing for expensive projects.

Merkley talked about Republicans in the Senate who have refused to hold any hearings concerning the nomination of a Supreme Court justice to replace the vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia, who died in February.

“It’s the first time in our history that the Senate has refused to go through some kind of a vetting process for a Supreme Court nominee,” Merkley said. “I think it’s a huge mistake.”

Merkley said the GOP refusal polarizes the process and invites similar circumstances in the future in which Democrats might use the same tactics.

“The Supreme Court just becomes a political football,” he said.

Betsy Crist of Haines asked Merkley for his opinion about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

Merkley said he thinks it has some good provisions for agriculture producers and has strong copyright protections in Oregon, but he opposes the TPP.

“There is a lot in the TPP and there are pieces of it that would be helpful,” he said. “But what I’m concerned about is the manufacturing stuff. We have repeatedly given away access to our markets to countries that are not on a level playing field.”

Those countries have no or very low minimum wages, he said. That makes it impossible for American manufacturers to compete which has resulted in the loss of many factories in the U.S.

Those losses have contributed to the shrinking of the American middle class and the TPP, were it approved by Congress, would continue that dangerous trend, Merkley believes.

Marshall McComb of Baker City asked Merkley about potential solutions to the loss of jobs across the country due to the technological shift in manufacturing that takes advantage of automation and computerization of tasks that people performed in the past.

McComb said many talk about raising the minimum wage.

“That doesn’t seem like that’s going to make that big of a difference,” McComb said. “What kind of wealth transfer can you use to take that new wealth that goes to the top 1 percent and get it back in circulation amongst the people that really need the money?”

Merkley said the question is incredibly important. He then talked about his experiences at being amazed at how automation and robots in dairies and factories have taken the place of people.

“This is a huge problem,” Merkley said. “Nobody has an answer to it.”