Senator's annual town hall meeting

by: HOLLY M. GILL - Louise Muir, left, questions Sen. Ron Wyden while others wait.At his 674th town hall meeting on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden met with a full house at the Madras City Hall.

Questions covered numerous federal programs and issues with long titles, but short nicknames, such as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (county payments), Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Addressing the Secure Rural Schools act, first passed in 2000 to compensate states and counties with federal forest lands, Wyden said that over the years, Oregon has received $2.6 billion.

A reduced total of $100 million in funding was reauthorized recently for one year, but Wyden considers it a stopgap measure. "We've got to get people back to work in the woods," he said.

Tom Brown, of Madras, asked about firefighting volunteers needing to be insured under the Affordable Care Act.

"Volunteering is hugely important," said Wyden. "It's an area I've been interested in. At every stage of the process, I try to go at the volunteer issue in a bipartisan way and minimize the red tape associated with implementing the law. I would like the employer to have a one-page form."

Continuing on the issue of Medicare and health care, he commented, "For obvious reasons, health care costs are gobbling up everything in sight. Ninety percent of spending goes to chronic disease."

While he supports the Affordable Care Act, he also favors a bipartisan plan "to clear out a bunch of these rules. There's a whole group of plans and processes that are showing very good results," he said.

Wyden expressed support for Internet neutrality, which means that Internet providers should treat all content equally, and not allow "big interests" to determine content.

"I've supported net neutrality from years ago," he said.

Regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Fran Davis, of Crooked River Ranch, expressed concern about lack of oversight, which has resulted in sweatshops and lead in products from the Asia-Pacific region.

Wyden pointed out that one out of six jobs depends on trade. "What I want to do in the Senate is help Oregon grow things, make things, add value to them and ship them somewhere," he said.

He wants to improve the Trade Promotion Act, which sets the framework for negotiating agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, so that there is more transparency. "We have to determine what is really an issue," he said.

Jim Kollen, of Madras, asked Wyden about the recent use of the "nuclear option," in which the Senate ended a filliubster by declaring an issue a constitutional question, and then putting it to a vote of the full Senate. Kollen wanted to know if Wyden would agree to the option if there were a Republican president.

With the consent of 60 of the 100 U.S. senators, the option allowed the Senate to end a fillibuster, as it did in November, to allow a vote on judicial candidates.

In this case, the nuclear option "essentially involves executive appointments," said Wyden, adding that he would support the option if the president were a Republican. "We've never had this many blocked on executive appointments. The president's got to be able to do his job; I wish it hadn't gotten to this point."

Mike Britton, manager of North Unit Irrigation District, emphasized the importance of Senate Bill 1771, the Crooked River Collaborative Water Security Act, introduced by Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley in November, "to amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to adjust the Crooked River boundary to provide water certainty for Prineville."

"You have my support to close the last remaining issue," said Wyden. "We're not giving up; that's not the way we do it."

Wyden also expressed his continued support for the designation of the Cathedral Rock and Horse Heaven Wilderness areas in Jefferson and Wasco counties.

Jefferson County Commission Chairman John Hatfield said that the designation has pluses and minuses, but the fact that there is no public access to the Cathedral Rock area "negates the positives."

"Jefferson County is opposed to it without access," said Hatfield.

Wyden said that they have worked with landowners to come up with a compromise. "Nobody got everything they want," he said. "The question is, can we get what we need."

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