U.S. Senator Ron Wyden Visits Baker City
By Jayson Jacoby
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden visited Baker City Sunday and he touted his efforts locally on behalf of what he called "the most important issue of our time - growing the middle class."
"The middle class has really taking a shellacking," Wyden, a Democrat, told a crowd of about 40 who gathered at 1 p.m. at the Baker City Senior Center.
"How are we going to have jobs - and particularly jobs where people can make a decent living?" Wyden asked.
He cited a couple of examples in which he took action to either help to create, or to preserve, such jobs.
One is Ash Grove Cement Co.'s plant in Durkee, which has more than 100 workers and is among Baker County's larger private employers.
Wyden has supported Ash Grove, which has spent about $20 million over the past several years to reduce airborne mercury emissions from the Durkee plant but was faced with potential federal rules that would be difficult to comply with because the limestone the company uses at the plant has high levels of naturally occurring mercury.
So far Ash Grove has been allowed to continue operating, having reduced its mercury emissions by more than 90 percent.
"I stepped in because we were talking about protecting middle class jobs - lots of them," Wyden said.
He also noted that he backed the U.S. Forest Service's Snow Basin logging project on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in eastern Baker County.
The Forest Service estimates that the multi-year project, which was challenged by environmental groups, will support 100 jobs in the timber industry, Wyden said.
The senator, who said the Baker City town hall was his 693rd in Oregon since being elected to the Senate in 1996, also said he is sponsoring a bill that would increase healthcare reimbursement rates for rural hospitals, a benefit, he said, for middle class workers in the healthcare industry.
Wyden described the U.S. economy as a "Dollar Tree and Neiman Marcus economy" - in other words, one with a large lower-income class, as represented by dollar stores, and an upper-income class.
Wyden emphasized that, in talking about his efforts to assist the middle class, he wasn't taking credit for creating jobs.
"If anybody in government stands up and says, 'I created 500 jobs,' that's absolute baloney," Wyden said. "The jobs come from the private sector."
He said his main goal is to support laws and policies that enable private businesses to hire employees, or encourage people to start their own businesses.
In that area, Wyden learned from his audience, there's quite a lot more work to be done in Baker County.
Bill Harvey, a local homebuilder and business owner who's a Republican candidate for chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, told Wyden that Baker County's economy used to be based on a "three-legged stool."
The legs, Harvey said, are mining, timber and agriculture.
"Today we don't have two of those legs to speak of," he said, citing the decline in logging and mining. "We've got nothing else to fall back on."
The biggest problem, Harvey said, is that government regulations, combined with lawsuits, have "taken more ground in Baker County out of production," slashing both tax revenues and jobs.
"We need our natural resources," Harvey said. "We need to cut more trees or our forests are going to burn."
Wyden said the public forest management bill he sponsors, although it is not yet law, has contributed to a change on the Malheur National Forest.
"The cut (in timber) is up, litigation is down," Wyden said. "If we can get that bill passed I think we will see progress on all the national forests east of the Cascades."
After Wyden made his pledge to try to help more Americans join the middle class, Harvey said he is concerned about Baker County residents at all income levels.
"We have people at low incomes, a lot of people on fixed incomes," Harvey said.
He reiterated his concern about the effects of environmental groups filing lawsuits that stall logging proposals and other projects on public land.
"We allow environmental groups to sue at the drop of a hat," Harvey said. "Would you please do something about stopping that or slowing it down?"
Wyden didn't specifically answer Harvey's plea, but he did say, again referring to Ash Grove, that his goal is to "make sure the regulatory system doesn't cause mindless heartache."
"I want policies that give everyone in America a chance to get ahead," Wyden said.
In response to a question about the federal minimum wage, Wyden said he backs a proposal, also endorsed by President Barack Obama, to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
Wyden said he understands the concern that such an increase could harm small businesses.
He said he concluded that boosting the minimum wage would have a net benefit, though, because workers would have more money, and that they would spent most of that money in the local economy.
But Baker Valley farmer Brent Kerns said there's another aspect to the minimum wage debate.
Kerns, who said he hires about 40 seasonal workers from the area each year, said he would like to hire teenagers and help them understand what it takes to be a valuable, reliable employee.
Trouble is, Kerns said, first-time workers usually have few if any skills, and with Oregon's minimum wage at $9.10, much less a federal minimum wage at a dollar more than that, he simply can't afford to hire beginning workers.
"If I have to start at $10 an hour, I can't do it, and it makes me feel bad," Kerns said.
Kerns suggested a system under which farmers could hire workers as young as 14, and pay them a training wage of $4, with the option of advancing to $8 an hour or more when they turn 16.
The basic idea, he said, is that a 14-year-old can learn from a 16-year-old the benefits of coming to work on time and putting in a good day's work. By the time an employee is 18, he or she would have strong work skills that could make $10 an hour a reasonable wage.
Wyden responded to Kerns by saying that although he's leery about allowing employees to hire workers as young as 14, "as farmers you have legitimate concerns about labor."
"Let me continue this discussion and be back at you," he told Kerns.
Bob Middleton, who lives near Haines, having moved here from Central California about six months ago, told Wyden that his cost for a Medicare supplementary plan through Blue Cross increased by 50 percent.
Middleton said he filed a grievance and was told, in effect, that the increase was due to his age and where he lives.
"As a senior citizen I've never felt quite so marginalized," he said.
Wyden said he doesn't know why a Medicare supplementary plan's cost should have increased by 50 percent.
"I'm going to look into your situation," he said.
Wyden also promised to take immediate action regarding a comment from Teresa Brown, a Halfway city councilor.
Brown started by describing an overall situation in which the combination of state and federal policies seem, in her estimation, designed to "do away with" Halfway and nearby Richland.
She mentioned in particular such things as road closures, and growing populations of wolves and cougars.
Brown said that during a private meeting regarding Halfway's sewage treatment lagoons, an official from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) said the city "should not be" in its current location.
Wyden, who said he has spoken with Brown on the telephone several times about other issues, asked her to clarify her statement, which she did.
"That is just in my view unacceptable," Wyden said, referring to Brown's description of the DEQ official's comment. "We will be on the phone to the state officials tomorrow."
Wyden acknowledged that, as a U.S. senator, he has no direct authority over a state agency.
Wyden several times emphasized his bipartisan credentials, mentioning among other things his co-sponsoring of "the first bipartisan federal tax reform bill since the Reagan administration."
Wyden said the bill would get rid of a number of deductions from the federal tax code, a move he said is necessary to reduce marginal tax rates and maintain a progressive system, in which people with higher incomes pay higher rates.
Marshall McComb of Baker City, chairman of the Baker County Democratic Central Committee, asked Wyden about the effect of unlimited donations to campaigns.
McComb described the situation not as bipartisan but as "tripartisan," with wealthy campaign donors forming a sort of third party.
"It looks like the wealthy people are winning," McComb said.
Wyden said that although he supports a constitutional amendment to limit campaign contributions, he doesn't believe such a change is likely any time soon.
He decried what he termed "dark money pulsing through the political system" - "dark," in this case referring to campaign donations in which the donors' names are not revealed.
Wyden said he is co-sponsoring a bill, with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, that would require donors' names to be public records.
He noted that even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who opposes limits on campaign spending, thinks donors should be identified.
McComb responded by saying he's concerned by the amount of money that's being spent, not necessarily by who's spending it.