Sen. Ron Wyden holds town hall in Columbia County
Sen. Ron Wyden will hold his 1,000th town hall Thursday, Feb. 24, in Lane County — a long-awaited milestone for Oregon's senior senator, who set a goal in his first campaign in 1996 to hold a town hall every year in each of Oregon's 36 counties.
But before that 1,000th town hall, Wyden held his 998th town hall last Friday, Feb. 19, in Columbia County. The Portland Democrat discussed broadband, child care, and cyber security over a video call from the Spotlight's office in downtown Scappoose.
Questioners in Wyden's Columbia County town hall included a handful of prominent local officials.
Paul Vogel, director of the Columbia Economic Team, asked what Wyden is willing to do about the "regulatory and bureaucratic barriers that hamper development of energy projects" even as Congress approves spending for infrastructure projects.
"We've got no shortage of excellent infrastructure projects in Oregon, they pay good, good money, and we're going to be hands-on with local elected officials to receive quick and fair consideration," Wyden said, adding, "I was able to get funds for more resilient power systems. And with all the trees that we've had go down in the storms and the like, we've got a chance for another public-private partnership to get these systems up and going. … Getting power systems up and running after storms, cleaning out forest backlogs … make the point that we've got to get through the bureaucratic hoops quicker and in a more focused kind of way so people can actually go out and use the money in the BIF, the bipartisan infrastructure fund bill.
"We've got this huge backlog of forest projects and we've got to prioritize getting that … addressed. These backlogs and this buildup of fuel on the forest floor is just a magnet for fire," Wyden said.
He added, "Every part of the state has been affected by this. They're not your grandfather's fires — they're bigger, they're hotter, they're more powerful. And we have all watched the toll that they've taken on our state."
A rural Columbia County resident asked Wyden what he was doing to improve infrastructure like broadband access for rural constituents.
"As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I'm not going to let a bill come out of here without a substantial amount of infrastructure money," Wyden said. "Now, these funds all traditionally have gone through various layers of government, and what happens is people (in rural areas between cities) fall between the cracks."
Wyden touted a 2021 law pumping more than $1 trillion into infrastructure projects across the country.
"The bipartisan infrastructure bill has substantial funds for the kinds of things you're talking about, and it's my job to walk these dollars through the system," Wyden continued. "If you're willing, we'll just kind of make you our guy on the ground and go to work on it. … I'm also very concerned about price gouging … I'm really concerned about some of the big, big satellite operations. They really just have people in a position where there isn't anything resembling a competitive marketplace. In a lot of these areas, in terms of healthcare, energy and food, you've got these big monopolies."
Claire Catt, executive director of United Way of Columbia County and the mother of three young children, asked what Wyden was doing to increase the availability of affordable childcare.
"You don't hear many Democrats use this word, but I'm a supply-sider," Wyden said. "We just flat out have to increase the supply because there's not enough, which means that jacks up the price. … To me, childcare kind of fits into two baskets. One is getting help to people immediately. For example, I've had churches say, 'Ron, if you make a small amount of money available, we can take the basement of our church and we can have affordable childcare for families in a matter of months.' Now, that's not going to take care of everything that needs to be done. But there are ideas out there for actually doing something now to help people now."
Wyden pointed to another trillion-dollar-plus bill that has stalled in the Senate, President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Act.
In that bill, Wyden said, "There's a substantial amount of money not just in child care, but also universal pre-K. … The evidence is so clear, either you get there with good childcare and universal pre-K and the like, so that they can grow and learn and get ahead. Or you play catch-up ball later on for years when you have all kinds of challenges in school and in the criminal justice system and the like."
He added, "In terms of increasing supply, I'm going to use tax credits and other kinds of incentives so that we can get the supply up."
The newly appointed state senator for Senate District 16, Rachel Armitage, asked about how local legislators can partner with Wyden to address cybersecurity threats to local governments.
"I'm probably known as the Senate's privacy hawk," Wyden said. "(I believe) that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive. Smart policies get you both, not-so-smart policies get you less of both. … If you ask me what the big threat is for our country, I put cyber right up at the top. I think we've all been reading the stories about China and Russia and all kinds of people who, very often — their leaders, not the person on the street — do not wish our country well. These are very real threats."
Wyden added, "I wanted federal agencies to be serious about making sure that there is basic cybersecurity assistance to … small governments and small businesses. … And second, I want federal agencies to step up, because sometimes when we do those rules they say, 'Well, we'll get a waiver for two years.' That's not much comfort to the small governmental bodies and small businesses."
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