Monday, July 17, 2023
By: Scott Keith
Hot-button topics, including the high price of prescriptions, the U.S. Supreme Court and climate change, were on the minds of Columbia County residents Saturday, July 15, at a town hall meeting in St. Helens with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley.
In the air-conditioned gymnasium at Lewis & Clark Elementary School on a fiercely hot and windy day, Merkley answered questions from citizens and met with the media beforehand to address items of concern to Columbia County.
At the media availability, Merkley was asked about the increasing number of wildfires and how the federal government can help smaller, rural counties, such as Columbia County. He noted that grants are available to help local fire districts.
“Grants that we do help local fire districts be able to either get other equipment or to hire people,” Merkley said. “Communities apply for them, and Senator (Ron) Wyden and I lobby for them.”
Merkley talked about the need to support downtown projects, such as the St. Helens Riverfront Project.
“If more people use the waterfront, that’s more people in the restaurants, more people buying things at the hardware store,” he said.
Inflation, while it has been subsiding recently, continues to impact Columbia County buying habits. Merkley specifically mentioned the frustration surrounding high drug costs.
Merkley, along with Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, have introduced the End Price Gouging for Medications Act.
“I’m pushing for us to negotiate the price of all of our drugs, the way every other developed country does,” Merkley said. “We pay, on average, at least twice what most countries pay, but sometimes it will be 10 or 20 times more for the same thing, which is why people sometimes drive to Canada to go a drug store.”
Merkley added, “We get ripped off by the drug companies. We invest more in the research and development for these drugs than any other county. We should get the very best price in the world.”
Merkley also has his eyes on home costs in the United States.
“One of the things that I’m proposing, that hasn’t been proposed before, is banning hedge funds from buying houses,” he said. “Those hedge funds, in some markets, are buying 40 percent of the houses for sale. … I think homes should be homes for families, not a profit center for Wall Street.”
Merkley also addressed questions from community members at Lewis & Clark, including one from an audience member concerned about Earth’s rising temperatures.
Pointing out a heat wave that has baked the American Southwest and parts of Mexico over the past several days, Merkley noted the need for renewable energy projects.
“I think it’s the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced,” he said of the climate crisis, pointing out, as an example, a dramatic lowering of the snowpack due to higher temperatures and less precipitation.
Merkley addressed the topic of the U.S. Supreme Court, where recent decisions on affirmative action and student loan obligations have sparked controversy nationally.
Saying he grew up with the court “above politics,” Merkley said the court is now a much more political organization.
Since the founding of the nation, Supreme Court justices have served lifetime appointments, but Merkley is suggesting a change.
“What I am proposing is a system in which we keep nine justices who are voting, and after 18 years they go to senior status, where they can help out with circuit courts, and so forth,” Merkley said, noting this system would allow two seats to be open under each president.
Merkley, like Wyden, regularly meets with constituents throughout the state. A Lane County town hall, held Sunday, July 16, was Merkley’s 540th town hall since being elected to the Senate.