A town hall gave audience members the chance to ask the senator questions in Banks Jan. 13.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Sen. Jeff Merkley visited Banks High School Jan. 13 for a Washington County town hall meeting.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley touched on the country's new tax bill, immigration policy, healthcare, offshore drilling and more in front of about 300 people gathered in Banks High School for a town hall Saturday night, Jan. 13.

Merkley was met with applause when he told the audience he hadn't ruled out the idea of running for president in 2020.

One of the biggest topics of the town hall meeting was the Republican tax reform package that became law last month. When Merkley asked the audience who supported the tax law and who did not, the overwhelming majority of attendees expressed their disapproval.

Merkley zeroed in on the negative effects he said the law would have, stating the tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy take away $6,000 from every adult and child in the country for healthcare, infrastructure, college and more.

"These are the foundations on which families thrive," he said.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act brings the U.S. corporate tax rate from 35 percent down to 21 percent. It also lowers taxes for most Americans, as well as small business owners, for the next eight years. Many of those individual cuts will eventually expire, however, unless they are extended by Congress.

All together, that act will cut taxes on businesses by an estimated $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Republicans argue those cuts will spur employment and allow the economy to surge. Democrats, along with many mainstream economists, disagree, saying that cutting corporate taxes is not a proven way to stimulate job creation.

The plan roughly doubles the standard deduction, but it limits the deduction that Americans can take on their federal tax bill because of state and local taxes to $10,000. Some families will get a larger tax credit for children under the plan, raising the amount from $1,000 to a maximum of $2,000 per child, depending on family income levels. All told, some filers will see the amount they pay in taxes fall but others will see it rise.

A Banks High School junior asked Merkley why he referred to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as "horrific."

"It's horrific because it's equivalent to a massive bank heist on our national community resources," the senator answered. "Our funds are going to the richest Americans when we already have massive income inequality, massive wealth inequality equal to" that of the Great Depression, he added.

Those resources should be used for better education, better healthcare and better infrastructure, Merkley said.

Merkley also said he wants to see the country's leaders resolve the status of the Children's Health Insurance Program, better known by its acronym CHIP. The program has not been reauthorized since it expired Sept. 30. A short-term extension is currently in place.

The joint state-and-federal government program provides health insurance for thousands of Oregon children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to pay for their own health insurance. Merkley said he is hopeful that Congress will reauthorize the program in the next few weeks under an agreement formed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

When asked where the future of immigration policy is headed, Merkley pointed to the 2013 immigration bill that passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan collaboration and support as something to look back to for broader immigration reform. The laws are important to enforce, Merkley said, and there should a computer tracking system.

The 2013 bill established a track to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that outlined several security criterion. There was also a mandatory workplace verification system under the law.

"I still think that's a strong foundation" for a comprehensive bill, Merkley said.

The senator also addressed a question about offshore drilling off the Oregon coast.

"We're going to stop it, make sure it doesn't happen," he said, and was met with applause. "We'll use every tool we can."

The White House recently proposed to allow offshore drilling in the Pacific Ocean.

"How we could we put at risk this most spectacular coastline" along with "our salmon, our crabs, our shrimp, our ground fish, how could we put at risk the whale migration off the coast? How could we put at risk our tourist industry?" said Merkley, calling drilling off the coast "beyond crazy."

Merkley then went on to say the issue isn't just about the risk of oil spills but also about the continuing demand for fossil fuels and the threat of global warming.

"Petroleum needs to be in the ground — keep it in the ground," he said. "This is the battle of our generation."

In one of the evening's more dramatic exchanges, a Forest Grove woman shared the story of her son's longtime battle with a slow-growing brain tumor and the current battle she's engaged in with insurance companies. Because of complicated primary and secondary insurance laws, her son's procedure has been delayed for what she suspects will be six to eight months, she said.

"This is insane," the woman said, pointing to state and nation's complicated and frustrating healthcare and insurance systems. "Mostly, I'm watching my son, who has worked so hard to get into college, and now he's going to have more seizures."

The woman said she would do whatever she could to help fight for a change.

"Your story is about the complexity and stress of our system," Merkley told her. "We have the most complex system in the world."

Merkley said he will introduce a bill in the next few months that aims to simplify the healthcare system. He also said the nation needs to hold drug companies accountable in order to have affordable healthcare in the U.S., saying they engage in "predatory behavior" that drives up costs.

Another Banks High junior asked the senator what the next step might be if the recent ruling that bans "net neutrality" is not overturned.

Net neutrality requires Internet providers to promote all content from all sources equally. For example, net neutrality prohibits an Internet provider like Comcast from promoting news from a media outlet they're affiliated with by significantly slowing down other media content or blocking it all together.

Merkley explained the concept of getting rid of net neutrality using the metaphor of a highway. Imagine the Internet as a highway, he said, where only the rich can travel in the fast lane, and those who cannot afford the fees to travel in the fast lane will be doomed to the slow lanes.

"When you're a user of the Internet, you're not going to go to a website that's in the slow lane," Merkley said. "The big players in the world will squeeze out ordinary competitors who aren't as rich. It takes away the ability of ordinary people to have the same access and voice as the big players."

Merkley said it's one of the most one-sided issues he's ever seen in politics with the overwhelming majority of people opposing the recent ruling that would get rid of net neutrality.

"Once it's put into the federal registry, we can challenge it," Merkley said. "I think we are going to overturn that rule."

If that fails, Merkley pointed to the November election.

Saturday's event marked the 328th town hall the senator has held in Oregon. The meetings give the public a chance to share concerns and ask questions, a process Merkley called "extremely helpful" in representing the state's residents.

By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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