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Jeff Merkley holds town hall Jan. 3 in King City

Affordable Care Act, transportation, infrastructure and environment are among hot topics discussed


by: BARBARA SHERMAN - TAKING TIME TO LISTEN - Following his town hall at Deer Creek Elementary, Sen. Jeff Merkley talked individually with several people, including Richard Uhing of Forest Grove, about issues of importance to them.Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) might have been dressed casually in jeans and cowboy boots when he came to King City for a town hall Jan. 3, but he addressed hard-hitting topics that included the Affordable Care Act, the United States' deteriorating infrastructure, funding college education, environmental issues and transportation.

Merkley spent a couple of hours at Deer Creek Elementary, first meeting with invited elected officials and then participating in a public forum with Washington County residents.

In 2008 Merkley pledged to hold town halls in each of Oregon's 36 counties every year, which he has done for the past five years. He hit Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties on Jan. 3, which were his 181st, 182nd and 183rd town halls.

He first asked the small gathering of about 50 people what percentage of the Gross National Product the U.S. spends on infrastructure, noting that China spends 10 percent and Europe spends 5 percent. The answer: The U.S. spends 2 percent.

"Whey you're spending 2 percent, you're not even repairing what you have," said Merkley, adding that he has introduced a bill in the Senate called the Water Infrastructure Investment Act that he hopes will become law.

As for education, Merkley said, "There are a lot of challenges in replacing No Child Left Behind, and we have seen the cost of higher education escalate faster than inflation."

He compared the burden of paying for college to household mortgages and added that he is exploring a program called Pay It Forward, which may be considered in the 2015 Oregon legislative session.

"You take out a contract instead of a loan and agree to share part of your income as your repayment for 20 years," Merkley said. "Payments are determined on what (people) earn. I am pushing for a pilot program."

After recognizing Deer Creek teacher Maria Copelan as the World Affairs Council Oregon Global Teacher of the Year and thanking her "for working for Oregon families and children," Merkley opened the event to questions.

As people came into Deer Creek, they were given raffle tickets, and Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers was in charge of pulling out tickets and calling out numbers to determine the order of questions.

The first person mentioned the Dec. 30 collision of two trains in North Dakota in which at least 21 cars filled with crude oil were engulfed in flames, and nearby residents had to be evacuated.

"We have freight trains coming down the Columbia River (Gorge) now, and more are coming," the man said. "What role will the federal government play in regulating this? Environmentally, an accident like that would harm Oregon and Washington irreparably."

Merkley replied that oil is more explosive than coal and that relatively new information must be incorporated into issuing permits. As for coal transport, "I've called for an environmental impact statement," he said.

A woman commented that environmental issues and climate change don't get enough coverage, and Merkley asked the audience what the number 400 means.

He explained that the global concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which are considered to be the main cause of global warming, have reached 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history.

"It was 270 before the Industrial Revolution, and now it is 400 and unsustainable," Merkley said. "In Oregon we think of fish, forests and farming. For fish, this will mean smaller snow packs and streams. For forests, it means more pine beetles, which are not killed off when it doesn't get cold enough. As for farming, in the Klamath Basin there have been three huge droughts in 13 years."

He added, "This is not theoretical, this is not a problem for the future."

Merkley explained that a major source of carbon dioxide is buildings, and "energy-saving retrofits are the biggest bang for the buck." He added, "We can't outsource the labor, and most of the materials come from the U.S."

Another factor contributing to climate change is transportation, although vehicles are getting more energy-efficient and some are now using natural gas, Merkley said.

"We need to push ahead on all fronts… " he said. "Every nation has the responsibility to jump in and work together."

Other topics raised by audience members included food stamps, migration to Oregon from other states, and Merkley's support for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender causes, but the hot topics of the Affordable Care Act and Cover Oregon weren't raised until near the end of the event.

A man in the audience told Merkley that a Harvard study last year proved that Medicare saves lives and that the Medicare portion of the Affordable Care Act will save lives; he urged Merkley to "mention it every time you're on MSNBC."

Merkley replied, "It makes sense that if folks have access to health care, they are more apt to seek medical help… This is my 181st town hall, and (everywhere I go) folks say, 'I have a pre-existing condition, and I couldn't get health insurance.' Some people say they are trying to stay alive until they are 65.

"I'm also getting lots of letters from folks saying they can now get health care (under the Affordable Care Act)."

Merkley also heard pros and cons about Cover Oregon, the online marketplace where people were supposed to be able to shop for health insurance and get financial help beginning Oct. 1, but the website, developed by Oracle Corporation and managed by the state of Oregon, has not yet worked.

Merkley said that when he talked to Oracle Co-President Safra Catz, she spent the first 10 minutes apologizing before he could get a word in edgewise.

Merkley added, "I'm hearing from small business owners who cannot access their credits, and at the end of the year, we will look back and see how it worked.

“The rates posted on the exchange are below what people would pay as individuals, and we will keep what works and get rid of what doesn't."

Michael Denton, who owns an automotive business in Tigard, told Merkley that he has 12 employees and was providing benefits, but when his health insurance costs went up 40 pe rcent, he had to end the practice. He added that 10 of the 12 are in the desirable "under 30" bracket that the ACA and Cover Oregon want to lure, and "all 10 have given up" trying to enroll.

Merkley countered, "I'm hearing from small business owners who cannot access their credits, and at the end of the year, we will look back and see how it worked. The rates posted on the exchange are below what people would pay as individuals, and we will keep what works and get rid of what doesn't."

However, Kate Mohr, who owns a Tigard sports chiropractic clinic with her husband, reported that they started offering health insurance to their employees through Cover Oregon, and added, "It is a tough process, but the program is good."

In summary, Merkley asked, "Have you noticed the Senate and House are broken? And 19 out of 20 Americans feel they can't be fixed."

He explained that in the modern Congress, partisanship has led to a polarizing process that is overdue for reform.