U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D) spoke at a Town Hall Meeting at the Vernonia School on Monday January 14, 2013.
Wyden opened the meeting by recognizing several Korean War Veterans in the audience. Wyden announced that he was a sponsor of U.S. Senate Resolution 602 which commemorates 2013 as the “Year of the Korean War Veteran.” Wyden presented the veterans with a plaque of the resolution and honored their service. The veterans received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Wyden spent the remainder of the meeting answering questions from the audience. Vernonia High School students were invited to attend the Town Hall and were in attendance. Wyden focused much of his attention during the meeting on the students, specifically trying to engage them during the ninety minute meeting.
VHS Student Body President Samantha Wallace asked Wyden about what can be done to change the high cost of a college education. Wyden responded that access to college is very important and that he supports funding for Pell Grants. He also said college needs to be about value and said he has introduced legislation called “The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” which tells prospective students about graduation rates, debt levels and most importantly, what a student would be likely to earn in salary if they received a degree from particular school.
Gun control and school safety was the subject of several questions from the audience. When asked about whether he would support a ban on assault weapons, Wyden explained that he and his wife are the parents of three children under the age of six and that the horror for the parents of the children murdered in Connecticut is unimaginable. Wyden also confided that he had a brother who was a schizophrenic who caused his family much anxiety over whether he was capable of hurting himself or others. Wyden stated that he wrote the “Career Criminal Law” which mandates stiff penalties for those with a prior criminal record who commit a subsequent crime with a gun. He has also worked to fill in the gaps in the mental health system. Wyden says he believes that, in light of recent events involving gun violence, that our country needs to do more to protect its citizens. Wyden says he would like to be part of a bipartisan effort to get more “gun sense” into the debate to provide practical and effective measures but also takes into account rights and responsibilities. Wyden said he felt strongly about personal responsibility and would start with and advocate for three things: a background check system that works; a system that monitors firearm transfers very closely; and a system that requires storage of firearms. Wyden said there are fundamental questions about what qualifies as an “assault weapon” and also that the possibility of limiting the size of ammunition magazines needs to be debated and those will be the more challenging issues. Wyden later commented on school safety, noted that he is against arming teachers in schools. He also stated that he does not think there is just one reason that school shootings takes place and that in a free society the reality is, we would need to have a debate about whether we should restrict people’s freedoms. “I don’t think that is what the country wants, but we could have that debate,” said Wyden.
Student Makayla Roach stated that research shows that art helps students in all areas of education and asked how more money could be devoted to art education programs. Wyden responded that he is a big supporter of all elective class programs. He noted that in Oregon, education is funded by timber funds harvested from federal lands. Wyden said he would be writing a new law which will bring together all states that have federal land and federal water and rework the payouts to states to support stable education. “The federal government needs to be a better partner,” said Wyden, “because what worked a hundred years ago isn’t working very well now.”
Student Will Parks asked about why the government doesn’t return to the old form of timber taxes to fund education. Wyden said that in the past there was irresponsible cutting done and damage to the environment. “That of course was one extreme and now some people want to go to the other extreme and not cut anything,” said Wyden. “What I think what we need is a sensible, balanced, multiple use approach and that is what I will be working for.”
West Oregon Electric Cooperative General Manager Marc Farmer asked Wyden’s position on the federal government declaring hydro-electric power as a renewable resource and also asked if Wyden supported the privatization of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). Wyden responded by stating that he would not allow anyone to privatize the BPA “…on my watch. We will pull out all the stops to keep that from happening.” He also noted that he didn’t expect the Obama Administration to attempt to do that. He also stated that he considers hydro to be a renewable resource and would be central in the attempts to build a low carbon economy. “Every program that I have a chance to put it in print, it will be so designated,” said Wyden.
Exchange student Hanna Hofer asked about the development of alternative energy sources.
Wyden said he would like to see more development of natural gas, as long as environmental concerns are addressed, to act as a bridge until other alternative energy resources, like hydro, wind, geothermal, and wave energy can be developed. Wyden says he thinks alternative energy can create a lot of jobs.
Wyden responded fairly succinctly when asked about his stance on gay marriage. “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get one!” stated the Senator. “I think that equality and justice particularly on matters that are private and personal are not the business of the federal government. I think you ought to be able to marry who you want.” Wyden received a round of applause from the crowd after his response.
Wyden spoke about controlling the costs of Medicare. “The reason I bring this up with students is because if the country doesn’t contain Medicare expenses, Medicare is going to gobble up everything in sight,” said Wyden. “It’s going to take the money for schools and for arts, and for roads and parks and a lot of stuff that all you young people are going to want.” Wyden stressed that containing health care costs is an important issue for the younger generation.
When asked about the recently passed Farm Bill and the lack of help for small farmers, Wyden noted that the bill that was passed was not very comprehensive and needs to be rewritten. Wyden says he is working to include provisions that would make it easier for schools to buy food directly from local farmers and to allow gleaning so food would not be wasted. He also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the food stamp program. “The food stamp program needs to become something beyond a conveyor belt for calories,” said Wyden. He went on to say that the federal government should be doing more to promote healthy eating practices, especially under the food stamp program.
Wyden concluded the meeting by addressing the students in the audience. “The reason I am having these Town Hall Meetings in high schools is because, when you serve in the Congress you ought to think about what is ahead. What I want to do is make sure that the decisions that we make today are going to be good for your generation.”