Just about every seat was taken Saturday afternoon for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's town hall meeting at the Seafood Consumer Center.
State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, introduced Wyden, who was obviously pleased at the large turnout on a sunny day. This is "pure unfiltered democracy," Wyden said, then spent the next two hours fielding questions on the Iraq war, healthcare, education, liquefied natural gas, the economy, taxes, abortion, the fishing industry and dredging permits.
As for Iraq, "My sense is that an awful lot of legislators believe a big old tidal wave was sent last November," Wyden said. He said he was one of 23 senators who did not vote for the war, and last year he was one of 13 senators who voted in favor of legislation that would bring troops home in a phased withdrawal over a period of one year. He said the whole country was misled about reasons for entering the war. Now, he said, "The important thing is getting the Iraqis to govern themselves ... Our troops have become a crutch."
"Don't think we haven't been watching you," said Carol Newman, asserting the war has cost Clatsop County more than $26 million. "Will you vote against sending any additional troops to Iraq?" she asked. Wyden replied he had already voted to bring troops home. But he said while American troops are on the ground, he will always try to make sure they have what they need to protect themselves.
Wyden said he also voted to give states the responsibility for siting LNG facilities, but was again on the losing side. He said there hasn't been enough focus on LNG's possible environmental impacts and he is interested in pursuing that perspective.
The Democrat said one of his top priorities is getting the federal Secure Rural Schools Act reauthorized, which he wrote in 2000. The act functions as a safety net by providing payments to counties based on historical timber receipts. The payments are used to fund education, roads and other county services in rural areas.
"The federal government owns nearly half our land. Historically, as trees were cut, we got money for roads and schools," Wyden said. If the law is not extended, "there's a real question whether some counties can survive," he said. "We've got communities that are getting hit like a wrecking ball moving through town."
Wyden said he and his Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, are pressuring the administration to extend the act.
"I personally feel that the federal government is walking away from history here. We didn't just snap our fingers and pull an arbitrary figure out of the air. This relates to the historic timber cuts on federal land," Wyden continued. "I've been pulling out all the stops every day, and I've been telling people back there (in Washington, D.C.), this is a crunch that is hitting Oregon now."
Commenting before the town hall began, Johnson praised the Oregon senators' efforts, saying Smith and Wyden "have fought like tigers" to get the Secure Rural Schools Act reauthorized, which has been providing about $400 million a year in payments to Oregon counties. She said without it, there will be a big hole in the state budget.
"Where the interface will be with the Oregon Legislature is if that money goes away, we're going to be trying to figure out how to work with the counties, who are our partners in the delivery of social services and many other services, to fill in a gap the state can't make up," Johnson said.
An Astoria educator pleaded with Wyden to do something about the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Calling it the "stupidest" law, she said she has to spend her time on paperwork instead of teaching. "I will throw myself on the ground ... Please change it," she begged, apparently only half in jest. Wyden sympathized, saying the law promised additional funds and accountability and didn't provide much of either.
The audience applauded Monica Taylor when she expressed grave concerns about the reliability of computerized voting machines. "I'm trying as hard as I can to take Oregon's vote-by-mail nationwide," Wyden responded, saying it eliminates fraud and is more convenient.
Donna Wright had a laundry list for Wyden. She said women's access to abortion should be restored to what it was before President Bush took office, there should be sex education and birth control for boys and girls, gay people should have the same rights as everyone else, including marriage, and Wyden should stop animal-fighting and LNG, and end the war in Iraq.
Dr. PaulJohn Hayner, an Astoria internist who is president of the Independent Physicians Association, asked Wyden to lobby for Astoria to be designated under the Health Provider Shortage Act, as surrounding communities have been. Currently, Hayner said, local doctors who provide primary care to senior citizens don't earn enough to pay their bills. Wyden promised to "pull out all the stops" to get that designation.
Wyden is a strong advocate of reforming health care, breaking the link between health insurance and employment, ending tax deductions for healthcare and stopping insurance companies from "cherry-picking" to avoid insuring people who might actually get sick. "Today if you're a CEO you can write off the cost of a designer smile on your taxes. An ordinary worker gets just about nothing. I want to transition to a lifetime guarantee of coverage equal to what Congress gets, for no more than we're spending today," Wyden said.
Diane Moody, director of the Seafood Consumer Center, thanked Wyden for working in Washington, D.C., to strengthen aquaculture and fishing, which she said are a major source of employment here and an economic engine.
Wyden responded that he has been trying to get fishing families maximum relief from economic hardships. He said they "have been on a roller coaster ... It's been the worst of all worlds," because of lack of predictability caused by constantly changing government rules. At Wyden's suggestion, Moody agreed to host a fishing community roundtable to identify issues that he may be able to help with.
Dredging issues prompted Warrenton City Commissioner Dick Hellberg to ask for Wyden's help. Hellberg, who chaired the Hammond Marina Task Force, told Wyden communities near the mouth of the Columbia River are "victimized by the pollution coming down the river," saying it all floats down here from agricultural industries. He said more than half the estimated $1-million cost of dredging the Hammond basin went for permits. Agencies have different standards, they change standards, they make it impossible to dredge because the cost is insurmountable, Hellberg said. And he said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is exempt from the rules.
"Someone's got to help us. It's going to break the whole lower area economy."
Wyden said he was surprised about agencies' different standards and asked Moody to put the issue on the agenda for the community roundtable.
Johnson said the permits are "driving us crazy" and it's time for local, state and federal government to get together with the Corps and "and try to figure out, 'how can we do business better?' I think people are confused about Corps processes... I think we ought to sort of demystify the Corps, and I would welcome any attempt to have all levels of government work collaboratively with the Corps, even though the Corps is a federal responsibility."
The state has been very critical of Lower Columbia communities about sewer and water systems, Johnson said, "but I think we need to pay more attention to what goes in the river up in Portland and comes down to the mouth and actually accumulates here ... I think we have to look at every activity in Portland with an eye toward, what does that do the families and the fishermen and the communities downstream from Portland? So this is an Oregon problem, this isn't just a Clatsop County problem."
Johnson said she has a great relationship with Wyden's office and his staff has been remarkably responsive. She pointed out they share many of the same constituents and issues often overlap.
Wyden was elected to the Senate in 1996, after 15 years in the U.S. House. Every year he holds a town hall meeting in each of Oregon's 36 counties.
Johnson said she's glad Wyden has kept his commitment to come to every county in Oregon. "I have five counties, so I'm always glad to see him in my district and he's very generous to let me tag along with him."
Wyden's next stop Saturday was a town hall meeting in St. Helens.