U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden continued his regular series of town halls across Oregon, meeting with Clackamas County residents, elected and business leaders on Tuesday, Jan. 25, to discuss a wide range of topics raised by community members.
Wyden praised Pamplin Media Group for providing the Milwaukie-area venue, then after a few opening remarks, began fielding questions from constituents. During the hour-long public forum hosted by nonprofit The People's Town Hall, Wyden updated constituents on his efforts as chair of the Senate Finance Committee and discussed the potential impacts of a recently passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which he says will facilitate transportation improvements and aid ongoing regional recovery efforts following destructive wildfires.
Wyden additionally addressed a number of questions from community members regarding public health and safety, looming I-205 tolls, small business support, a changing climate and more.
"There's nothing better than to have Oregonians look you in the eye and say what's important to them," said Wyden, who has held at least one town hall in each of Oregon's 36 counties each year since he was first elected to the Senate in 1996.
The first question came from Catherine, a Clackamas County resident who shared that her family had been impacted by gun violence and asked the senator if he would support stronger policies to curb the growing issue.
Wyden responded that he has always believed in the right for law abiding citizens to own guns, but "that is not something that prohibits sensible, common-sense gun reform."
Wyden emphasized his commitment to strengthening bipartisan partnerships around passing measures regarding gun accessibility and storage.
"We're going to have to build a bipartisan coalition," Wyden said. "If we can get young people in the rural part of the state to be a new, outspoken force, for common-sense measures to fight gun violence, that could give us the new energy to help break the gridlock."
Wyden said as part of his efforts to support bipartisan alliances, he is asking attendees of each of his town halls in 2022 to nominate Oregon projects that "bring people together" to solve a challenge.
"Political change hardly ever starts in government buildings and then trickles down. It's almost always grassroots," Wyden said. "So if you're having events to mobilize community leaders…to try to break through the gridlock, we'll be there."
The Democratic senator gave the example of his recent efforts with U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to put an end to "fire borrowing" by requiring wildfire prevention to be funded through traditional sources, adding that he would try his best to support grassroots events promoting unity in a time of "polarization."
A nature-related question came from Pete, a county resident who runs a whitewater rafting company that has been impacted by the continued closure of public access to the Clackamas River in Mt. Hood National Forest without a clear timeline of reopening.
Wyden said he is currently working with the U.S. Forest Service to continue wildlife relief efforts and will focus on supporting people's safe return to their homes and businesses with the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
"I've been up to Clackamas, I've seen the devastation from 2020…hundreds of miles of roads need safety work, repairing culverts, bridges, tree removal," Wyden said. "We are talking to the Forest Service about all of these issues, where more repair needs to be done and in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is just passed, I think we'll have a chance to unlock some of the funds that we need for the work that you're talking about."
Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba joined to ask Wyden about federal support for climate-change mitigation efforts amid uncertainty that the Senate will pass the Biden administration's $2.2 trillion Build Back Better Act, which contains sweeping incentives to reduce greenhouse-gas pollutants.
Wyden, former chair of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said he helped develop the foundation for Build Back Better seven years ago with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, who currently holds the swing vote in the evenly split Senate and said in December that he could not support the plan, spurring doubts over the bill's future.
Wyden said the bill's fundamental principle with regard to the climate is increasing the tax incentives for companies to reduce carbon emissions, a framework that is also the basis of his newly introduced Clean Energy for America Act which he said has thus far received an encouraging level of support from the Senate.
Wyden said his goal is to make it so that "if you reduce carbon emissions, you're going to be able to be part of getting tax savings," adding that a modified tax system would promote long-term clean energy incentives that can remain predictably steady despite the many variables of a changing climate.
Jeff Parrish, co-owner of Portland Cider Company, shared that his business has been running at about 50% since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, yet one saving grace was a recently discontinued employee retention tax credit which he asked Wyden if he would support reinstating.
The tax credit helped many small business keep employees on payroll throughout most of 2021, yet was canceled in the fourth quarter of the year with the passing of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. House Bill 6161 has been proposed to help retroactively compensate businesses harmed by the tax credit's removal.
Wyden, who was an original sponsor of the tax credit, said he would do everything he could to support the businesses who were impacted by the change and referenced his history of championing small-business issues, including helping write the Paycheck Protection Program and a bill to cut excess taxes for craft beverage companies.
Paul, a retired Clackamas County businessman, voiced a concern many residents have echoed about tolling expected to hit stretches of I-5 and I-205 in the next five years, asking the senator to consider earmarking funds to improve the highway instead of continuing with developments that will, in his view, "kill downtown Oregon City" by redirecting traffic.
"I think traditional tolling can be very regressive," Wyden said, "and certainly putting a burden on people, the backs of working people as your primary approach doesn't strike me as fair."
The senator said that the new infrastructure bill provides the Metro region with a unique opportunity for a new tool in its toolbox to fund highway improvements and work must continue at the state and federal level to iron out best financing practices, but no official decision has been made as to how the bill will be specifically used.
To watch the session in full, click here.
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