US Senator Jeff Merkley and US Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici held a joint Town Hall at the Vernonia School on Friday, April 3, 2015.
Over sixty people were in attendance when Senator Merkley opened the meeting by making a presentation of a United States flag to high school principal Nate Underwood. The flag had previously been flown over the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. “This school contributes so much to the strength of this community,” said Merkley. “This is really in appreciation for how every facet of the community came together to make this happen.”
Merkley and Bonamici both made opening remarks and then took questions from the audience.
In his opening remarks Merkley stated that not much has been passed through the Senate since January. He noted that the Senate had spent almost a month working on the Keystone Pipeline issue which President Obama had said he would veto and did, spent a month on a Homeland Security bill which everyone agreed on but then had unrelated immigration policy riders added, and spent a few weeks on a new trafficking bill which everyone agreed on but then an unrelated social issue was added to it, and then time was spent on the budget. Merkley also mentioned conversations about authorizing military force in Syria, the Iran nuclear weapons treaty, and the attempt to fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Congresswoman Bonamici noted during her opening remarks that she serves on the Education and Science Committees. She said she has been working on the reauthorization of the “No Child Left Behind” act, which she said needed some “big changes,” and said instead of focusing on standardized testing we should provide a well rounded education for students. She has introduced a bipartisan amendment to the reauthorization that would eliminate low quality and redundant testing and better inform instruction; the bill has passed through the Education Committee. She also has been working on the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act which provides funding for senior service programs like Meals on Wheels, which she said helps seniors live independently for as long as possible. Bonamici said she serves on the Environment, and Research and Technology subcommittees of the Science Committee and said she had a bill that she sponsored pass in the House. The bill, the Tsunami Warning Research and Education Act, has strong bipartisan support. She said she is also working on the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act which would assist in agriculture and fishing and has been passed out of committee. Bonamici said she did not support the budget bill which she said made too many cuts to safety net programs and made too much additional investment in defense spending. “We need to keep our country safe, no doubt about it,” said Bonamici, “but the way to do that is through good, smart investments in intelligence and in cyber security. That huge investment in defense is not the right direction.” Bonamici also mentioned the importance of the permanent fix to the reimbursement formula for Medicare, which passed the House and will be considered in the Senate. “This is something that has needed to be done for many years,” said Bonamici. Bonamici noted that temporary funding for Secure Rural Schools was added to the bill, and that she is committed to working on that as well.
Throughout the meeting both Bonamici and Merkley mentioned the importance of their bi-partisan work in Congress in order to try to get things done and mentioned examples when they have worked across the aisle on legislation.
When the Senator and Congresswoman began taking questions from the audience, the first question came from Vernonia High School senior Alexis Baska, who asked if they could help provide more funding for education in rural areas like Vernonia. Senator Merkley responded that the federal government funds programs like Title One, Head Start and No Child Left Behind. He said that in the new budget he will be pushing for more funding for education and trying to block more funding for defense through the appropriations process. He expressed concerns about the number of students in classrooms and the loss of special programs and activities, like band, for students. He said we need a vision for education that provides a pathway through both degree and non-degree programs and stressed we need more training and technical education programs. Bonamici said most education funding decisions happen at the state level, but that states need to maintain federal programs. She said she is also concerned about class size and encouraged citizens to contact their state representatives. She said she is committed to doing what she can at the federal level.
A hot topic of the meeting was the Oregon LNG and Pipeline projects. Bonamici said she was aware of the project and was concerned about building the project in a subduction zone but said she also understands the need to build the local economy, but thinks we need to find a way to do that while protecting the safety of the environment and local residents. Merkley expressed concern about the use of the fracking process to extract natural gas and the damage it creates. He also noted the effect of our continued dependence on fossil fuels and its impact on global climate change. Both Merkley and Bonamici encouraged citizens to stay involved in the local and state permitting processes. Merkley asked State representative Brad Witt, who was in the audience, to address the issue of the Oregon LNG and Pipeline projects as well. Witt reiterated concerns he expressed in an interview with Vernonia’s Voice earlier in the month about the project, stating that he is against it and is especially concerned about the placement of the storage facility at the mouth of the Columbia River. Witt encouraged local activists to get involved with the fight in Warrenton and Astoria and not just oppose the pipeline portion of the project.
A member of the Oregon Sierra Club expressed concerns about fossil fuel trafficking and suggested the types of jobs we need in this part of the country should be focused on renewable energy technology. He also expressed concerns about the potential for a major earthquake in the region and asked whether there is a potential shift in federal spending to protect against an eventual large natural disaster. Merkley replied that it is much easier to get federal funds to rebuild after a natural disaster than it is to get them in anticipation of a disaster. Bonamici said Vernonia is a shining example of resiliency and how federal funds can be used to rebuild. She said resiliency is currently an important topic of conversation but said the discussion needs to be changed to include how investing now saves dollars later; that requires long term thinking, which is not always the way congress operates.
Another hot topic of the day was the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Merkley showed an in-depth understanding of the possible agreement and expressed concerns about the secrecy of the negotiations as well as enforcement of any agreement. Bonamici said she has concerns that this agreement will lead to more jobs going overseas and is concerned about the secrecy. She said she is asking lots of questions including asking about environmental standards, labor protection standards and enforcement and asked constituents to send her their concerns about this issue. Both Merkley and Bonamici voiced concerns about any “fast-track” on any agreement.
Local resident Tim Nebergall, Executive Vice President of a local non profit, said he has purchased five acres in Vernonia to start a self-sustaining permaculture and education pilot project to teach people to sustainably grow their own food. Nebergall indicated concern about draughts and water shortages and asked for help to fund his project. Bonamici said she was interested in learning more about the project, noting that she is very concerned about potential water shortages and that she is interested in small scale projects that are new and better for growing food and feeding people. Merkley also expressed concerns about water shortages.
Throughout the meeting, during their responses to several questions ,both Merkley and Bonamici stated their concerns about the need to take seriously and address global climate change. Bonamici noted the need to use technology and to educate their colleagues about the issue.