US Sen. Wyden holds Town Hall at David Douglas High

Find out what he talked about when answering questions, at his only (and lightly publicized) appearance in Portland last week …

Speaking to an audience made up mostly of David Douglas High School students, US Senator Ron Wyden invites questions, with the help of the school’s Principal, John Bier.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Other than the staff and student body members of David Douglas High School (DDHS), it seems few local residents were aware of US Senator Ron Wyden’s Town Hall meeting last week on January 5, that got underway at 9:45 a.m. in the Horner Performing Arts Center.

No TV camera crews or radio reporters were on hand to record his responses to the questions posed by the students, and a few guests who had somehow learned about Wyden’s only public appearance in Portland on that day.

A couple of Portland Police Bureau officers and command staff members were on hand, providing low-key security for what turned out to be a civil and serene event. It didn’t appear that anyone was excluded either from the event or from participating. Individuals representing both liberal and conservative points of view were permitted to comment and ask questions  – in addition to the students.

Oregon State Representative Jefferson Smith introduces US Senator Ron Wyden, noting that this is the Senator’s 531st town hall meeting in Oregon since he took office.

“I have known of Ron Wyden since I was younger than most of you in the room,” said Oregon State Representative Jefferson Smith, as he introduced Wyden.

“My family put out a campaign sign [to support his election campaigns] when he represented us in the United States House of Representatives. He is now our senior senator. He is an independent voice that both encourages and frustrates both friends and critics,” Smith added, as he welcomed Wyden to the podium.

“Thank you very much, for that unquestionably inflationary introduction,” Wyden responded. “What happens [at my town hall meetings] is that I usually start by talking for an hour or so – people really enjoy that. I see this young man here in front – he’s taking this seriously – his face just got all pale! Actually, here, you give me your views, and I’ll do my best to respond to your questions.” The MC for the questions and answers was DDHS Principal John Bier.

DDHS Principal John Bier welcomes guests to the Town Hall event, telling how his school is the largest, and one of the most diverse, in the state.

Principal Bier takes charge
After talking briefly about his school, Bier welcomed the senator. He added, “As a school principal, one of the things I do is enforce the rules. Tickets were given to both students and guests who wished to participate. I’ll draw the tickets from this bowl.”

With that, Bier drew the name of the first person, who asked if the federal “climate bill” being proposed is “an excuse to actually limit the Environment and protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from coal plants and other stationary sources.”

[Editor’s note: We’ve chosen present Senator Wyden’s remarks in full text; it has been lightly edited for length, and to delete parenthetical, rhetorical, and repetitive phrases.]

The EPA at issue
“It’s your generation that inherits the planet,” Wyden responded.

“Under the law, the Environmental Protection Agency is really being looked at as a fallback, in case you can’t get support in Congress for climate-change legislation. The President has made it clear that this is not his first choice – to have the EPA ‘march onto the field’, and somehow handle the entire climate-change issue under its own administrative authority.

“This issue be front and center, after the healthcare legislation and financial reform and job legislation – it’s going to be a big issue into the spring of this year. It goes right to the heart of how we also strengthen the economy. For example, I feel very strongly about Oregon being the ‘green energy’ capital of the world – creating more jobs in the ‘green energy’ space.

“I do not think that creating jobs and addressing climate are mutually exclusive.  In fact, I think that responsible climate-change legislation will create jobs and save energy.”

Many of the issues Senator Wyden addresses concern impending federal healthcare legislation.

Questions a ‘dumbed down’ healthcare bill
A participant noted that “many millions of Americans are without healthcare” and added that Congress “dumbed it down, since it was first introduced”. He said his real concern was regarding how the bill will affect US military veterans.

Wyden described the process of the bill through the US Senate and House – and how the bills will be “reconciled”. “Normally, a conference committee is set up in the House. As you see that the papers, there are discussions going on now considering the absence of having a conference – they should read [why it is important] in civics books. I’m hoping that will take place.

“Veterans healthcare is not affected,” Wyden stated. “I know a lot of folks are worried about how various people will be treated. I feel very strongly that with all the veterans that will be coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to boost funding for veterans’ healthcare. I think there are ways to do it without adding to the deficit. One [funding method] I feel strongly about is taking away subsidies for oil companies that are drilling on public land.”

Wyden noted how the healthcare bill he introduced, the “Healthy Americans Act” [CLICK HERE to view a PDF document of the summary], differed from the bills. “We’d be doing a lot more to hold insurance companies accountable than they are doing today. We would be enforcing competition to help keep the premiums down.  My approach didn’t prevail. One of the reasons is that it stepped on a lot of special interests feet, and took out some of the biggest lobbies in the country. I understand when you’re doing that, you’re going to have some pretty tough opponents. We have been able to get at least part of the way, in terms of our philosophy.”

Asked why not allow people to buy coverage across state lines, Wyden quipped, “You’re being logical! Heaven forbid that logic should break out!

“I will support that, as long as, if you have a kind of federal shopping network, you also have federal consumer protection rules. If you don’t do that, you could have a ‘race to the bottom’ [to buy policies in states offering low cost, poor-coverage policies].”

Wyden decries ‘preexisting healthcare insurance limitations’
“One of the most inhumane aspects of American life for years has been that insurance companies could discriminate against you just because you have a pre-existing condition,” proclaimed Wyden.

“Not only is it inhumane, it’s also anti-entrepreneurial. If someone has a good idea to start a business – they can’t – because they are tied to staying on to keep their healthcare insurance. I’m going to pursue this cause relentlessly.”

Oregon’s senior US Senator says immigration reform is likely to be more controversial than healthcare issues.

Wyden’s views on Immigration Reform
Asked about immigration reform, Wyden said, “The immigration system in this country is broken. It does not work for anyone. There is nothing that I can find that is as dysfunctional as the American immigration system.

“Let me offer what I call the ‘Three elements of sensible immigration reform’. And by the way, if you think healthcare is controversial, wait till we start talking about immigration reform – this is certainly not an issue for the faint of heart.

Part #1 – This has got to be to strengthen what our country does on its borders. If you can’t protect your borders, if you cannot strengthen your sovereignty, which is what border protection is all about – everything else is uphill.

Part #2 – This is enforcing the laws that are on the books. Some people merely think this is a quaint idea, that we actually obey the laws of the land. But I continue to believe that if you don’t honor the rules that we have in our society, everything else just falls apart. By the same token I think if someone knowingly hires somebody who is here illegally, they should face penalties.

Part #3 – [After] a period– I’m not wedded to a specific length of time – folks who are here illegally, undocumented individuals, come forward voluntarily during that period, and pay a financial penalty. [Then] they show that they have mastered English, which is absolutely key in our country – and show that they have not broken any other laws. Individuals who passed this ‘checklist’ should be given the opportunity to ‘go to the end of the line’, and apply to be citizens.”

The senator continued, “Some will say, ‘Ron, that’s amnesty. Those people broke the law. They are to be rounded up and sent back, and that’s that.’ If you take that position, one of the big challenges is exactly how you would carry that out,” Wyden said. He added, “I don’t even think that that is do-able in terms of how it can actually be set up.

“So, I support those three core elements. Another part of this debate [on both issues] for insurers and employers is that people who sign up for employment can verify that they are who they say they are.”

Wyden responds to issues of healthcare legislation’s constitutionality, as well as potential abortion funding, and possible coverage for illegal aliens.

More on healthcare legislation
Responding to a participant who questioned the constitutionality of the proposed healthcare legislation, Wyden remarked, “I think it’s clear, first of all, that there will be constitutional challenges to this bill, practically within minutes after the legislation has been signed.”

Asked about reproductive health and abortion issues, Wyden said, “I believe in the consensus in our society … based on Supreme Court decisions, ‘Roe versus Wade’ is the law of the land. We have also accepted in this country, and it’s equally controversial, the Hyde Amendment that bans any federal funding for abortions. Whether you agree with these or not, they’ve been on the books for some time. In my view, they form a rough consensus in our society.  I voted for the Senate approach that protects ‘Roe versus Wade’, but also no funding for abortions.”

In response to whether or not illegal aliens will get coverage under the proposed healthcare legislation, Wyden said, “I feel very strongly about this – absolutely no federal dollars, none, zero, are going cover those who are illegal.

“However, on my watch … I will not see a child or an infant – who did nothing wrong – be denied healthcare because their parents are illegal. [For their parents, they’ll get] not a dime of subsidies. But I’m not going to see those kids turned away.”

Vowing to fight for federal education funding, Wyden declares the importance to him of school funding.

Wyden comments on Education in Oregon
The Senator was questioned regarding educational funding in the state.

“In the state of Oregon, we pay for education differently from most states; it’s because the federal government owns about 50% of our land.

“In other states, when people sell a piece of land, it generates taxes for schools and for roads and other essential services. But we can’t do that, because the federal government owns such a large percentage of our land.  So, for more than a hundred years, Oregon would get a big check from the federal government tied to the amount of timber that was cut on federal lands.

“When the environmental laws changed – essentially, we no longer have that money. The money goes directly into our common school fund to be sent out all across the state.

“I wrote the law that has brought to Oregon well over $2 billion to get the help that we need for all of our schools around the state. We’ve got to make the federal government a partner in funding Oregon education. Stimulus legislation provided that the urban and rural schools can get money from the common school fund. Because education is so fundamental, in every part of our state, it will always be a priority with me.”

Wyden thanked the school’s staff, guests, and students, for their participation, and the Parkrose Town Hall concluded.

For Senator Wyden’s contact and other information, see his website: CLICK HERE.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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