Wyden, Merkley busy, from TSA lines to spotted frog habitat, veterans

Sens. Jeff Merkley issued a trio of news releases Thursday about developments on several issues, from seeking more funding for airport TSA agents to helping with spotted frog habitat in Central Oregon and various programs to help veterans, including with medical marijuana.

With the summer’s busy travel season rapidly approaching and lines growing ever-longer at the nation’s commercial airports, today Oregon’s Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden joined twenty-one of their Senate colleagues in calling for increased funding for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to help address long wait times and better ensure passenger safety.

TSA funding has decreased by nearly $250 million since 2011 even though the number of passengers screened has increased. In 2015, TSA screened more than 708 million passengers – an increase of 40.7 million compared to 2014.

In a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the senators called for additional funding to help ensure adequate staffing levels, reinforce screening efforts, and help expand security training programs.  

“Even while threats to transportation have grown, making TSA’s mission increasingly complex, TSA’s annual budget has gone from $7.688 billion in FY2011 to $7.44 billion in FY2016 – a decrease of $248 million or 3.23 percent over this 5 year period,” the lawmakers wrote.  “Tragically, we were reminded all too recently by the attack on the Brussels Metro and airport earlier this year that protecting our airports and surface transportation through substantial security measures is vital to protecting our citizens, and in light of this urge that funding is restored-not reduced.”

“Recent reports indicate that some TSA security lines have stretched for several hours, in extreme cases, causing individuals to miss their flights,” the senators continued in the letter. “Security is absolutely paramount and these long wait times indicate not only a discomfort to our constituents, but more importantly a severe lack of security resources at some of the busiest airports in the country. For this reason, we urge continued funding to ensure TSA has an adequate number of staff and resources to meet the needs of the traveling public.” 

Oregon’s Senators Jeff Merkley, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, and Ron Wyden announced that the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill, includes key provisions that will help Oregon’s rural communities.

These include $150 million in funding for a program that could help provide grants to address the loss of habitat for the spotted frog in Central Oregon, funding for wood products research programs that include Oregon State University’s work on cross-laminated timber products, and language encouraging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund industrial hemp research projects.

“I was glad to be able to put together a bipartisan bill with Chairman Moran that makes sure that Oregon communities are getting the resources they need to be successful,” said Merkley. “From Central Oregon farmers who are dealing with the spotted frog, to our rural communities that rely on the forest products industry, to finally allowing the federal government to fund industrial hemp research, this bill delivers for Oregon communities.”  

“This legislation builds on the economic strengths of our state’s forests and rich farmland while preserving our pristine wildlife habitats,” Wyden said.“It opens up new avenues to turn Oregon trees into groundbreaking building technologies and for Oregon farmers to gain from a billion-dollar industrial hemp industry. The result is a treasure trove of opportunities for new Oregon products and jobs, all while protecting endangered species.”

Key elements of the legislation that passed the Senate today that will impact Oregon include:

Spotted Frog Habitat Restoration: The bill provides $150 million for the Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations program, including funding for irrigation districts that need to improve water efficiency and conservation or otherwise improve fish and wildlife habitat. This program is a good fit for the collaborative process underway in the Deschutes Basin to conserve water and improve the habitat of the spotted frog, helping to keep Central Oregon family farms in business.

Cross Laminated Timber: The bill includes $3.5 million for the advanced wood products program at USDA that would enhance Oregon State University’s (OSU) cutting-edge work on cross-laminated timber (CLT). CLT provides an innovative alternative to structural building materials. OSU was first included in the program last year after Senator Merkley succeeded in increasing the program’s funding.

Industrial Hemp: The bill urges the Department of Agriculture to clarify that it has the authority to fund industrial hemp research projects, and prohibits the Federal government from interfering with hemp research projects or with legally produced hemp products. Industrial hemp is used to make everything from rope and cloth to oil and soap. Hemp products account for over $600 million in annual domestic sales, and while hemp has the potential to be a multi-billion dollar domestic crop, we instead have to import all of our hemp from nations ranging from Canada to China. Oregon is one of the states that have enacted laws allowing for the cultivation of industrial hemp.

The bill was voted out of committee today on a bipartisan vote. The next steps would be for the bill to be sent to the Senate floor for a full Senate vote, and eventually to be merged with a counterpart bill from the U.S. House of Representatives in order to be passed by both houses and signed into law. 

Oregon’s Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden today announced that included in the Senate Military Construction appropriations bill that passed the Senate today are key provisions that will help Oregonians.

These include $320 million for the Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) program and $496 million for the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) voucher program. These programs help veterans and their families who are either homeless or on their way to being homeless find a home.

Also included is a bipartisan amendment led by Senators Merkley and Steve Daines (R-MT) that would allow Veterans Health Administration (VA) doctors to discuss and make recommendations about the use of medical marijuana with their patients.

“From fighting for the rights of our veterans to helping address the housing crisis that is gripping Oregon, my job as a member of the Appropriations Committee is to help Oregonians in every corner of the state,” said Merkley. “Our veterans have stood up for us, and we must stand up for them. We need to make sure that our veterans have a place to call home and are able to communicate with their doctors about all legal treatment options.”

“Our country must never forget the sacrifices made by all of our veterans, and a big part of that gratitude must be working to do everything possible to support them when they return home,” Wyden said. “This bill takes a significant step toward that objective both by helping servicemembers find a home and by ensuring all servicemembers have access to the full range of medical options in states like Oregon where medical marijuana is legal.”

Key elements of the legislation that passed the Senate today that will impact Oregon include: 

Homeless Veteran Funding: SSVF and the VASH voucher programs are both crucial programs to help veterans and their families navigate the rental market. The SSVF program promotes housing stability among very low-income veteran families who reside in or are transitioning to permanent housing. The SSVF grants provide eligible veteran families with outreach, case management, and assistance in obtaining VA and other benefits. The VASH voucher program provides permanent housing subsidies and case management services to homeless veterans.

Senator Merkley recently completed a statewide affordable housing tour to talk with housing experts, local leaders and Oregonians who have been affected by rising rental prices, lack of available housing and skyrocketing housing prices. During the tour, housing advocates underscored how important both the SSVF and VASH voucher programs are to help our veterans get the stability they need.

VA Medical Marijuana: Under current regulations, VA doctors are prohibited from completing forms seeking recommendations or opinions regarding a veteran’s participation in a state marijuana program.  In practice, VA doctors generally won’t even discuss the use of medical marijuana with their patients. Earlier today, Congressman Blumenauer was able to win a vote in the House of Representatives to include similar language into the House Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations bill.

The bill was passed on the Senate floor today. The next step would be for the bill to be merged with a counterpart bill from the U.S. House of Representatives in order to be passed by both houses and signed into law.