U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley talks Covid relief, answers questions during Malheur County town hall

VALE – Funds from the $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill recently approved by the Congress will trickle down to small towns in places like Malheur County, help get small business back on track and students back into classrooms, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said Wednesday.

Merkley delivered his remarks and answered questions from area voters during an online town hall session.

Merkley, a Democrat, recently ascended to serve as the chair of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. The subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies oversees funding for the U.S. Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service.

The committee is important for Oregon, said Merkley.

“Our state has so much in federal forest controlled by that agency. To be able to have a direct hotline to the secretary of the Interior and try to get more funding for programs is important,” said Merkley.

Merkley said his drive to become chair of the subcommittee rests on the tour of areas of Oregon devastated by wildfires last year.

“I witnessed those towns incinerate down to nothing,” said Merkley.

Merkley said as chair of the subcommittee he will work to “try to get as much money as we can to thin our forests, do proscribed burns and mowing.”

Merkley also touted the impact that the trillion-dollar American Rescue Plan will have locally.

Merkley said Malheur County communities will get a share of the money “with discretion on how to use it.”

The federal subsidy will provide an estimated $5.9 million to Malheur County. Ontario, the county’s largest city, is expected to collect $2,240,950.

“Hopefully it will help with any number of projects,” said Merkley.

Merkley said also wants to see more federal money disbursed in the coming months as part of a proposed infrastructure bill.

“We are hoping to have bipartisan support,” said Merkley.

The senator said the proposed bill will direct funds to improve levies, roads, bridges and “important things like broadband and some of our forest infrastructure.”

Ontario resident Sam Castonguay asked Merkley if there had been any work on federal legislation to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Merkley said he was advocating a plan to “rapidly rebuild our energy economy.”

“We’ve got to feed renewable electricity into the grid, rather than making electricity by burning fossil fuels. By rebuilding this energy economy, we can create millions of jobs,” said Merkley.

Merkley said the proposed infrastructure bill will “have a whole section to the supply and demand side of this transition.”

“Biofuels may come into a significant role. Hydrogen may come into a significant role. I think we have a real opportunity,” said Merkley.

Merkley said he also supports a national gun background check system.

He pointed out that Oregon has a gun background check system that works.

Merkley said a system that is “effective won’t stop all those (mass shootings) from happening but it will stop some of them.”

Merkley said he wants to help more students attend college.

“The broader college experience should be debt free. We shouldn’t have to endure with graduation a huge pile of debt. That way, students will pursue their dreams and contribute more back to society,” said Merkley.

Tim Davis of Ontario asked about more resources for the regional U.S. Bureau of Land Management office.

Davis told the senator that the public lands in Malheur County see more use now – as the Boise metro area grows – and the influx of recreationists is straining the agency.

Merkley replied he is a key position to help.

“In terms of the broader picture I can push for higher funding on the appropriations committee. In a more direct fashion I can bring BLM staff in and talk specifically about challenges,” said Merkley.

Merkley said he is “really concerned about the direction we’ve gone in America.”

“Over the last four decades it has become hard for the middle class. We have become a much more polarized society, not just in politics but how much wealth is concentrated at the very top,” said Merkley.

He said he opposes move that lead to voter suppression and gerrymandering and “dark money in our campaigns.”

“I believe the ballot box is the pulsating heart of our democracy,” said Merkley.

Merkley also honored Four Rivers Cultural Center for its assistance to the county during the Covid pandemic.

“FRCC has done a great job of highlighting the area’s cultural diversity and provided a site for the county vaccination clinics,” said Merkley.

Matt Stringer, Four Rivers Cultural Center executive director, thanked Merkley.

“We are very grateful to receive this acknowledgment,” said Stringer.