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 bill 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 Congress.
“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.
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