Merkley talks money at town hall
“What was your favorite subject in school?” the fifth grader asked. Her face lit up when he said it was math. “Mine, too!” she responded.
The Democratic senator from Myrtle Creek, meeting with about 50 attendees Wednesday morning at McMinnville Community Center, provided updates on issues he’s working on in Washington, D.C.
Failure to extend unemployment benefits, said Merkley, will lead to more foreclosures and destabilization for Oregon families. He said Congress has extended the benefits in a bipartisan way, until now.
He said Oregon’s unemployment rate fell to the 7.9 percent range, but by letting the unemployment insurance lapse, Congress caused roughly 18,000 Oregon families to lose benefits. In the first half of 2014, an additional 1,115 Oregonians are expected to lose unemployment insurance each week, he said.
Merkley responded to multiple questions about corporate money corrupting the political process, and was asked if he would support a constitutional amendment to ensure corporations are not considered people. He called the issue extremely troublesome.
“The first three words in the Constitution are ‘We the People,’ and they are written in super size font to remind us this is the heart of the system,” he said. “It does not say ‘we the powerful.’”
Merkely, a member of the powerful Ways and Means committee, said he supports reform and is concerned one group of corporate directors can drown out the voices of 350 million Americans under current rules. He said the issue plays out with a complex legal debate.
One issue that can be tackled immediately is how the Internal Revenue Service defines charitable contributions, he said, calling it “one of the most Orwellian things I’ve encountered. The law says charitable contributions must be exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, but the IRS says exclusively means ‘primarily.’ That’s abuse of social welfare. The IRS needs to change its regulations to comply with the law.”
Also, Merkley said owners of a corporation should be allowed to know how their board of directors spends political money.
Tom Wright, representing the Delphian School in Sheridan, thanked Merkley for his support of the Wallace Bridge project, which Wright said will be an economic boon for the West Valley and the county.
The project proposes to develop a world-class equestrian center on property near the intersection of Highways 18 and 22 outside Willamina. Owner J.W. Millegan, a successful investment funds manager, has been in a bureaucratic battle with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the National Appeals Division, both agencies of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Wright urged Merkley to continue his support of the project.
However, Rob Tracey, who is retired from working for the NCRS, said the Wallace Bridge story is an example of money mingling with political motivation, harming democracy in the process.
“We bought that easement, the citizens did. We paid for it,” Tracey said. He said he knew Merkley’s office was being barraged to weigh in on the issue, and said he hoped the project’s wealthy proponent wasn’t able to sway Merkley into being “too influential in having that taken from us.”
Millegan has proposed to trade another portion of the property currently under a lease-option in exchange for the easement modification.
Merkley said the issue to be considered is whether moving the easement would meet the need of balancing economic and environmental interests.
Wright said he believed it would. As he understands the situation, the proposed easement swap would triple the portion of wetlands under governmental control in perpetuity.
Tracey said his primary concern was how moving an established easement sets a precedent that would erode other conservation efforts.
“It’s late in the game, much later than many of us realize,” Tracey said. “We can’t allow a breach in the program ... history tells us the environment will continue to lose.”
Merkley asked for a show of hands from the audience, which leaned significantly in favor of protecting the easement as it stands. He said he would continue looking into the matter.
Yamhill County commissioner candidate Mary Starrett said though she rarely agreed with the senator, she was encouraged by his push for transparency in trade agreements and by his support of the Wallace Bridge project.
Starrett asked if he was ready to concede the Affordable Care Act was not in the best interest of the citizens.
He was not.
While he said the rollout of Cover Oregon’s website “was a mess,” he still supports the health care reform.
“Yes, we are back in the age of fax machines and mailed-in applications, but we can’t return to the predatory processes of the past,” he said. He cited benefits of the new law, but added, “It does bother me a great deal that Kentucky ended up with a better exchange than Oregon.”