Thursday, July 20, 2023
By: Will Lohre Country Media, Inc.
Sen. Jeff Merkley held a Town Hall at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in St. Helens to connect with Columbia County residents to take their questions and hear their concerns.
Merkley opened the meeting by inviting people to express their feelings and ask questions but requested that attendees listen to opposing perspectives and be civil during the discourse. The event was held Saturday, July 15.
Merkley holds Town Halls in every county in Oregon, and the event at Lewis and Clark Elementary was his 539th town hall. Merkley said that the benefit of the town halls is to better understand the issues different communities in the state face.
“If I didn’t do all these Town Halls in very remote parts of the state, I wouldn’t get to talk to a lot of the smaller community newspapers. And I certainly wouldn’t hear firsthand about how the issues differ in different parts of the state,” Merkley said. “We have different economies, different cultures, different wildlife, you know. So it is valuable to hear directly from constituents to hear what they wrestle with.”
Merkley’s Town Hall drew about 40 members to the audience in the school gym at Lewis and Clark Elementary and fielded questions on a variety of topics, including the cost of pharmaceuticals, railway safety, diverting water from the Columbia River to California, the Supreme Court, climate change, plastics, and other more local issues.
When discussing diverting of water to California from the Columbia River, Merkley stated that there are no concrete plans to enact the plan and said it would happen “Over my dead body.”
In response to a question from a retired pharmacist about the rising costs of pharmaceuticals, Merkley referenced his End Price Gouging for Medications Act bill, which would ensure that the maximum price the United States pays would be the same price as other developed countries like Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Sweden.
“Whatever the lowest price is they charge those countries; we get the same price. I think that’s going to help us with that. It would make a huge huge difference,” Merkley said.
In response to a comment about support for railway workers and avoidance of railway disasters, Merkley voiced his backing for improving safety for railways and support for increasing relief for rail workers’ benefits and worker’s compensation.
Regarding the Supreme Court, Merkley said that the politicized nature of the court needs to be changed. Merkley said that he wants to find a way to change the way the Supreme Court is staffed. A potential solution he offered would be instituting an 18-year service term on the court for justices before they step back into a “senior status” classification, where they would then serve in a capacity supporting circuit courts. This would be an alternative to adding more seats to the court.
Merkley also said that there needs to be more accountability within the Supreme Court in light of the increasing issues of conflict of interest between justices and political parties.
When asked about climate change, Merkley said that snowpack is decreasing, and the result of diminishing glacier runoff is less water but also increased fire risk, among other consequences. Merkley also said that the increased numbers of climate chaos incidents are a result of increasing carbon levels.
“The test of humanity is whether we can stop going up. Right now, we’re actually going up faster than we did ten years ago. And ten years ago, we were going faster to the top than we did twenty years ago,” Merkley said.
Merkley said that despite all the discourse surrounding global warming and climate chaos, the planet is actually doing worse. Merkley said he is trying to hold the Biden administration accountable for all the fossil fuel-based projects they have been involved with.
One of the final issues Merkley spoke about for some length was the issue of plastics and microplastics. When asked whether the government was considering higher tariff rates for importers using plastic packaging, Merkley said that was an option he considered but would look into. According to Merkley, the issue of plastics is a high-priority concern.
Merkley said that United States citizens consume about a credit card’s worth of plastic every week through drinking water, eating food, and breathing air. Merkley said that Congress is working on solutions to put safety regulations in place to limit the environmental impact of plastics.
Interview with Merkley
Prior to the town hall, The Chronicle had an opportunity to sit down with Merkley for an interview to catch up on what the senator has been working on this year and to touch base on some of the ongoing community issues our paper has been tracking.
Merkley said that the federal government is working to decrease the threat of wildfires present through treating at-risk areas through prescribed burns and maintaining forests surrounding areas. Merkley said there are federal grants available to communities in need.
Regarding economic support for small towns, Merkley said that one of the big pieces of revitalizing cities is making American Rescue Plan Act funds available. The St. Helens Waterfront Redevelopment Project
is a project that was developed using these funds. Merkley said they are seeking additional funding this year to help disburse more funds to towns in need.
“We have things like the St. Helens waterfront project, trying to get funding to help St. Helens rebuild their waterfront that becomes an integral part of the town, and makes the whole economy work a little bit better,” Merkley said.
When asked about inflation and its impact on smaller communities, Merkley discussed the difficult task the Federal Reserve faces in raising interest rates to tame inflation. The raised interest rates affect families as they try to secure car loans or purchase homes. Two areas Merkley focused on were prescription drugs and housing.
Merkley referenced his End Price Gouging for Medications Act as a way to fight the increasing price of prescription drugs. Regarding housing, Merkley has a variety of solutions in mind.
“There’s a whole bunch of things I’m doing to lower the cost there. It includes things like using expended tax credits to do affordable housing, rent vouchers, veterans vouchers,” Merkley said. “One of the things that I’m proposing that hasn’t been proposed before is banning hedge funds from buying houses.”
Merkley said there are hedge funds that, in some markets, are purchasing 40 percent of houses for sale. This diverts equity from everyday people to some of the most wealthy Americans.
Merkley and fellow Oregon Senator Ron Wyden have made it a point of emphasis to hold town halls across Oregon each year.