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Merkley visits Basin; talks funding, policy
by SARA HOTTMAN, Herald and News 1/21/12
H&N photo by Shelby King From left, Klamath Falls City Schools Superintendent Paul Hillyer and Dan Keppen of the Family Farm Alliance talk with Sen. Jeff Merkley.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., visited the Klamath Basin this week, stopping in Klamath Falls Friday morning to answer questions from local leaders and members of the Herald and News editorial board.
He emphasized education and infrastructure as national issues — funding and policy — that have impacts locally.
“That’s part of the conversation I’ve been trying to encourage,” he said. “We have to wrestle broadly with how we spend money in this nation. …. The bill for Afghanistan last year was $120 billion.
“We need to spend less nation building abroad and spend more nation building at home on both the education side and infrastructure side.”
• Is there any chance the federal government will do away with the Endangered Species Act?
“There are people locally saying scrap the (Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement), we don’t need it,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of Family Farm Alliance. “Get rid of federal laws like the ESA and all our problems will go away.”
Merkley, who introduced legislation to implement the controversial KBRA, said he doesn’t know of any legislation currently seeking to reform or kill the ESA, which is the force behind endangered species protections that hinder timber production and water use in the area.
The KBRA, with a related hydroelectric settlement agreement, seeks to remove four PacifiCorp-owned hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, create sustainable water supplies for irrigators, fund habitat restoration in the area, and help the Klamath Tribes acquire 90,000 acres of private timberland.
• Where is KBRA legislation headed?
In November, Merkley and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., introduced legislation in their respective chambers to implement the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement. Congressional approval is required to fund most of the nearly $800 million agreement.
“We wouldn’t have what we have in Congress right now if it wasn’t for Sen. Merkley,” said Dan Keppen, executive director of Family Farm Alliance. “His leadership is greatly appreciated by the Klamath irrigation community.”
Still, most federal politicians in the area have not committed to supporting Merkley’s legislation efforts. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is co-sponsoring, but Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden, Ore., and Dianne Feinstein, Calif., have so far declined.
None of the Republican representatives in the area have signed on.
“I don’t feel like I’m out on my own,” Merkley said, noting he’s been in communication with the other senators. “I knew from the beginning folks were very shy about getting into this. It’s no surprise to me. … You’re stepping into the middle of a firefight and there’s going to be arrows coming from every direction.
“The legislative conversation will not be easy,” he added. “I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone in the process that it’s going to be complicated.”
• What’s happening with Secure Rural Schools funding?
Merkley said Oregon did its part in preparing to battle for timber reimbursements, which are set to end if federal legislation isn’t renewed — a devastating blow to the county’s already strained finances.
“We’re running completely against the stream,” Merkley said. “We’re going to keep trying to educate our colleagues … from states that don’t have timber counties. They’ve never heard of the issue or don’t view it the way we view it.
“... We need to hold the federal government accountable for its social contract with timber counties.”
• We want to keep the 173rd Fighter Wing at Kingsley Field. Can you support expanding the mission?
Todd Kellstrom, Klamath Falls mayor, said if there’s a chance Kingsley Field could expand its mission to include F-35 fighter jets, the city wants them.
“We love our military here,” he said. “In case that’s one of the tipping points.”
Merkley said broadening the base’s mission would keep it viable as the F-15 ages and eventually becomes obsolete.
“Every weapons system goes through a life cycle,” Merkley said. “If you don’t succeed in broadening a mission, when the life cycle comes to an end it becomes a huge economic blow.
“Seizing any opportunity along the way to take steps to get the F-35 would be very important.”
• With the Social Security office closing, cutbacks and closures at the post office, locals are worried that by the time the economy recovers, all the services that could help us will have left. What can rural areas do?
Merkley said local offices for federal services are important, and he has led the fight to keep rural post offices open, getting 20 offices removed from the list of closures.
“I’m going to fight this with every tool I possibly can,” he said.
He was on the road in Eastern Oregon when the list of post office closures came out.
“I talked to local citizens … and it became clear to me immediately that people were raising huge issues,” he said. “Small businesses operating in the area would go down if they didn’t have access; they’d have to move to a bigger town. … It’d hit seniors hard.”
Post office officials said they wouldn’t close offices that were more than 10 miles from another one. Merkley went down the list of closures and found 20 that fit that distance criteria. They were removed from the list, and he got a six-month stay on other closures.
The U.S. Post Office is trying to cut millions of dollars to balance its budget, and it says small offices don’t make enough to cover expenditures, so closing them would make up for the deficit.
“That’s not the right framework,” Merkley said. “It makes more sense to employ people for a couple of hours a day than to have 200 to 300 people go roundtrip 30 miles to go to the post office. There’s no contest. It’s much more efficient to have a post office.
“This is one of those important things for a delegation to band together on.”
• Sky Lakes Medical Center is looking at millions of dollars of deficits because of cuts in Medicare and Medicaid payments. Where are we going with health care in the country?
Merkley said the big problem facing rural health care is supply and demand: there are fewer doctors and nurses, but more aging people who need health care.
“If remaining practitioners can fill their schedules with people who (pay more) through private insurance, they’re not open to taking Medicare payments,” he said. “That’s a huge problem.”
The hospital has no choice; it has to take all patients. Additionally, Merkley noted, small hospitals have more overhead and more uncompensated care.
“We’re going to have to raise Medicare payments to be market competitive,” he said.
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Page Updated: Monday January 23, 2012 03:40 AM Pacific
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