Merkley, Wyden hold town hall at South Medford High School

Merkley, Wyden hold town hall at South Medford High School


By:  Ryan Pfeil

A few years ago, following the end of a federal government shutdown, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told reporters his next move: go dialogue with high school students about important issues in a town hall setting.

"We were told that we could have a week or so at home," Wyden said Friday. "I came off the Senate floor, and some press folks said, 'What are you going to do?' And I said, 'I have been watching adults bicker and quarrel and behave badly for weeks now. I'm going to go home to Oregon. I'm going to go to the high schools and talk to adults who set a higher standard, who are really interested in solutions, and not bickering."

This decision was the start of a program called Listening to Oregon's Future, a supplement to regular town hall meetings Wyden and colleague Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) hold across the state. They've held dozens of the student sessions so far. On Friday, they took the program to South Medford High School, where students asked prepared questions on a variety of topics.

"I thought it was awesome. I've never been able to see a politician speak live before," said South junior Coi Holloway, president of the school's speech and debate team. "I thought they answered the questions pretty well."

Many of those questions concerned current events on the national stage, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, legislative support for career technical education training, and the Affordable Care Act. Both senators applauded the students' efforts.

"The questions were clear, they were substantive," Merkley said.

Here are a sampling of issues students brought before Merkley and Wyden:

Repeal of the Affordable Care Act

Wyden believes there will be an effort to repeal the ACA "without offering a replacement."

"Of course, Americans were told the two were intertwined," Wyden said. "We heard there was going to be repeal and replace, and it's starting to feel a little more like repeal and run."

Such an effort, he added, has the potential to result in skyrocketing premiums within the ACA exchanges and outside them.

"I think what we have to ask for, if you're going to get rid of the health care plan, you've got to put your replacement up front," Merkley said. "Let's have the debate over what works and what doesn't."

Obama's response to Standing Rock

Earlier this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted the Dakota Access Pipeline's final leg of construction beneath a reservoir on the Missouri River to address concerns by Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes the pipeline would contaminate their drinking water. The Army Corps has asked for a study of the current crossing and for a consideration of alternate routes. Hundreds of protesters camped out near the site for months to halt the project, sometimes encountering violent actions from police.

"I did lobby the (Obama) administration to take a stand on this," Merkley said. "They took quite a while to get to that point, but they did get there, they made the decision, they made the right decision, and I hope the decision sticks."

How the senators will represent conservative parts of Oregon

"A lot of our counties are conservative," Merkley said. "In fact, more than two-thirds of them are fully in the red zone."

Both Democratic senators said they try to do town hall-style meetings in every part of the state. Merkley said it's a good resource for learning about new issues they can assist with. In the past, those issues have included keeping dozens of rural post offices open and granting farmers the ability to transport their crops across the border to Washington state without having to use interstate commercial trucks.

"There are a lot of opportunities for us to knit the state together," Wyden said, using installation of broadband and utilization of telemedicine, or patients receiving diagnosis via video and telecommunications, as examples.

Career technical education legislation

Merkley said more hands-on career technical education courses such as wood and metal shop can help open doors to a variety of career paths.

"The joy of learning to make things with your hands and see tools as a pathway to a career is something greatly needed in our economy," Merkley said.

Wyden, a ranking member of U.S. Senate Finance Committee, said the committee will be working toward new ways to promote CTE training courses.