Town hall: Senator Merkley fields questions in Lincoln City

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley took questions on a wide-range of
topics from the media and public Saturday at a town hall event held inside Taft
High School.

Merkley answered questions from citizens about Social
Security, electric vehicles, immigration, fixing Highway 101, the River
Democracy Act, investment partnerships extracting money from newspapers, gun
laws, marijuana tax money and the debt ceiling.

Oregon State Senator Dick Anderson couldn’t remember the
answer to a question about where marijuana taxes are spent, when called upon by
the Senator. Ultimately answering the question was Oregon House Representative
David Gomberg, letting the public know that marijuana taxes were being spent on
things such as behavioral health, substance abuse programs, and education.

The public voiced their concerns about the availability of
electric vehicle charging stations in Lincoln County. Merkley shared his
personal experience and said one of the best charging stations is at the gas
station in Otis where he was able to fast-charge his Chevy Volt. He called on
Lincoln County cities to catch up and tackle the upfront costs.

When asked about Social Security and possible cuts or
reductions Merkley had a three word answer:

“We’ll stop those.”

Merkley was asked about Oregon’s new gun law, Measure 114,
which is tied up in the court system. The Senator spoke briefly on the subject
and said:

“We’ll see how this turns out.”

Lincoln City citizen Jay Roelof asked about hedge funds
buying up newspapers and RV parks and extracting money from them. Merkley said
he was aware of the issue and talked about his new bill banning hedge fund
ownership of residential homes which is covered below.

A separate media availability event took place before the
town hall, where members of the media had a 15-minute block of time to ask
Merkley questions. Homepage had three reporters in the room and The News Guard
sent Senior Reporter Jeremy C. Ruark.

Homepage asked what the biggest issue facing Oregonians is
and what Merkley is doing to address it:

“I think the issue I’m hearing about from citizens the most
is affordable housing. It affects every single town across the state,” Merkley
said. “It’s very evident in some of our larger towns with the obvious homeless
tents and so forth. The omnibus
 we just passed has a lot of funding for housing. It’s not just an
Oregon problem, it’s a national problem.”

Merkley said he is “supporting all the elements for
affordable housing” such as down-payment assistance for homeowners, increasing
the amount of vouchers and how much they can cover, and introducing a new bill
that bans hedge funds from holding residential housing.

According to Merkley, when he first arrived in the Senate in
2009, massive foreclosures were happening and Fannie May and Freddie Mac were
holding a ton of homes. He appealed to the Obama administration to make them
available for families to buy. Obama and the treasury secretary said no and
ended up selling them to hedge funds by the thousands.

“Hedge funds is where the money of the richest Americans is
collected, which means the richest Americans were buying homes at half price
instead of families. Hedge funds went ‘wow, look at the appreciation we’ve
had,’ so you think about all that wealth growth that used to be for the middle
class was instead going to the richest Americans. It’s driving up the cost of
homes. People who have been shopping for homes have told me they are competing
with all cash offers representing big business. It’s helped drive up the costs
and drive up the rents.”

Merkley said the new bill has had positive reaction in the
Senate and “people get it right away,” but also said “these are very powerful
organizations who will fight like crazy to defeat any such legislation.”

Merkley was asked about immigration and he agreed the system
is broken and needs bipartisan support to fix it. Merkley spoke about a 2013
effort that addressed every aspect of border security, immigration, asylum
hearings and acted as a template of what the government needs to do. He hopes
Democrats and Republicans can come together and make it happen with the new

“The border needs to be secure,” Merkley said. “There needs
to be the rule of law. There are a variety of mechanisms to do so. I think the
goal of the country is to have a legal process, but as part of that legal
process we also need to have more immigration legalized for workers. I’m
hearing from businesses all over the state saying we are desperately in need of
workers, let’s have that be part of this legal structure as well.”

Merkley is one of two Senators representing Oregon in
Washington D.C. alongside Senator Ron Wyden (D).

Homepage’s Don Williams and Cary Moore contributed to
this report.