Standing room-only crowd turns out for Merkley town hall Sunday

More than 250 people turned out Sunday in Medford for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s first in-person town hall meeting in Jackson County since the pandemic began nearly three years ago.

People in the standing-room only crown in the gym at Lone Pine Elementary got a chance to voice concerns during the meeting about everything from gun laws and school safety to bullying, health care and the war in Ukraine.

It was Merkley’s 13th town hall meeting this month in Oregon, and his 577th overall. When he took office in 2009, Merkley vowed to host town hall meetings in all 36 Oregon counties every year to give community members a chance to voice their concerns.

During the town hall, Merkley took time to recognize the Mercy Flights Explorer Post 131, which trains youths ages 14-20 in emergency procedures and first aid.

Nearly two dozen audience members asked the senator questions during the hour-and-a-half event. In a press gathering beforehand, Merkley touched on cannabis banking regulations, the state of the economy, gun safety and wildfire preparedness.

The Democrat senator said his own Safe Banking Act, which would allow banks and other financial institutions to offer services to legal cannabis operations without fear of punishment by federal regulators, had not fared well in Congress, but he vowed to revisit the issue.

“I have been trying to get us out of the cash economy and into … the banking economy for quite a few years because the cash economy is good for people who want to rob stores or assault people coming out of those stores, for organized crime or for cheating on your taxes. A cash economy is bad in every possible way,” he said.

“The safe banking bill, I got a call saying it would be in the December package. And then I got a call the next day saying it wouldn’t, because one of the leaders across the aisle decided not to go there. … I’ve already met with stakeholders this year to plan how we’re gonna make another run at it.”

As to federal legalization of cannabis, Merkley said it was not likely. He voiced concerns over damage to water supplies and increased crime that still needed to be addressed at state levels pertaining to the cannabis industry.

On the topic of fire recovery, Merkley said he and Sen. Ron Wyden , D-Oregon, had prioritized preparing for wildfire season “both in terms of getting more funding and to reduce the risk in our forests.”

“With my efforts through appropriations, we have increased the amount of funding about 10-fold for forest management, but the amount of acres compared to the total acres of forest is still very modest,” he said, noting that forest thinning closer to towns and more firefighting equipment were top priorities.

During the public portion of the town hall, Medford mom Dwyn Nichol expressed concerns about school safety, noting that the town hall was in the school her four children had attended, which gave her pause.

“I can’t lie and say that several times a week, when I say goodbye to my children, I don’t wonder if I’ll be seeing them again,” Nichol said.

“Every time I get a text from my high-schooler, my heart stops beating for just a fraction of a second. So, what I have today is both a question and a plea. I’ve appreciated your voting record. The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act last year was incredible, but what more can we expect? And, please, can teachers and children and parents just stop living in fear every single day?”

Merkley voiced support for Measure 114, the gun-control measure passed by Oregon voters last fall, which he cautioned could be “in the courts for some time to come,” and he vocalized support for background checks, safety training and magazine size restrictions.

“A magazine of more than 10 bullets is great for moving into a room and shooting everybody in that room before you reload. Occasionally, smaller magazines have led to the opportunity to overpower a shooter and stop the carnage,” he said.

“There is no single strategy that will be perfect, but we need to approach it from the point of view of gun safety in terms of children accidentally gaining access to guns or the aspect of mental health. … When we looked at the carnage from cars and car accidents, it wasn’t one solution. It wasn’t, ‘Well, let’s have air bags and better bumpers.’ We did many, many things to try to reduce the carnage.”

Asked about the lack of affordable housing in the region, Merkley voiced support for his recently introduced End Hedge Fund Control of American Homes Act. With an estimated 20 or more percent of homes owned by investors, Merkley said the law would ensure young families had a better chance at home ownership without investors “driving up price and driving up rents.”

“Let’s have our houses be homes for families,” Merkley said, “and not a profit center for the richest people in America.”

One audience member asked Merkley about his general non-support for military spending, but his support for sending help to Ukraine.

“Here is my picture of the situation, which is we have Putin, former KGB, dictator, and he’s wiped out free speech and wiped out free assembly. He’s poisoned people around the world and, repeatedly, the people of Ukraine have said we want a republic, we want free speech, we want free assembly,” he noted.

“They proceeded to throw out a president who became a puppet for Putin. And what does Putin turn around and do? He says, ‘I will crush you with military war crimes every day. I will shell your houses, your schools, your hospitals’ … and those people are still fighting for their freedom, and I believe we have to stand with them.”

While a slew of topics came up Sunday, when asked before the meeting what was going well in Southern Oregon, Merkley pointed to a slowly recovering economy and new development, expansion of Medicaid and a steady return to normalcy following the pandemic.

With teachers and students slowly returning to a normal school setting after two years of remote learning and COVID restrictions, Merkley said he was hopeful that some $20 million in funding for four Oregon districts in January, which included $2.65 million for Phoenix-Talent Schools, would provide needed mental health services for students.

“It does feel like we’ve come out of two years with a lot of challenges, and one of those, really, is the impact on our children. Those two years, almost every family I’ve talked to has had some impact on their kids,” he said.

“Teachers are finding it’s very challenging to bring kids back into the classroom after two years where they haven’t been socialized in a classroom setting. So, one of the things I’ve introduced is the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Act. And the whole idea is to make sure every Title 1 school, or less affluent school, has counselors to help with the children.”

 “You can’t ask teachers to both be great teachers and great counselors and do it simultaneously,” Merkley added. In addition to providing help with student mental health, Merkley said teachers need more support.

“Teachers today, they’re afraid to talk about history or current events for fear of reaction from the school board or citizens in the community. We have to back up our teachers,” he said.

“When I was in grade school, my dad, who was a mechanic, he says, ‘Son, if you go through the doors of that schoolhouse, and you work hard, you can do just about anything because we’re fortunate to live here in America.”

Merkley, surveying the gymnasium, added, “And that’s only true if we have great public schools, we support our teachers, we have reasonable class sizes and support student counselors. We’ve got to reinforce our public education system.”