Economic relief, infrastructure and health care were key points of discussion for Oregon Senator Ron Wyden during a town hall for Coos and Curry counties Friday
“This is a chance to just listen and learn, and in particular I think what I’ve learned is especially relevant now is that Oregonians in Coos and Curry County want to be able to control their economic choices and their destiny,” Wyden told the audience, fluctuating between 60 and 80 listeners to the online event.
Through video appearances and live comments, area residents peppered the senator with questions, most relating in one way or another back to improving the region’s economic outlook.
In response, Wyden responded by committing to use his power as the incoming chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee for a variety of initiatives — lambasting the outgoing Trump administration and praising President-Elect Joe Biden along the way.
The town hall started with the news that COVID-19 vaccines the federal government had promised to ship to states wouldn’t actually be coming as planned.
“I feel like this is just another deception from the Trump administration,” said Joy May, a Port Orford resident who addressed Wyden during the town hall. “Perhaps a deadly deception.”
“The last 36 hours are sort of symbolic of how the Trump administration — from playing down the virus on day one, to zigging and zagging even on clarifying what the responsibilities were of the federal government and the states — now on their way out the door, they have given us a unique combination of lies and incompetence,” Wyden said.
In response, he pointed to Biden’s COVID-19 response plan which he said includes a national strategy for expanding production and administration of vaccines, as well as additional economic relief.
That relief was a key topic Friday, too, as people asked what options were still available for financial assistance, grants and funding. Wyden said he’s hopeful Biden’s plan for additional $2,000 relief checks will pass a soon-to-be-Democratically controlled Congress swiftly.
“We’re hoping to get that passed very quickly, in a matter of weeks, and I think the systems are now set up to get it out very quickly — again weeks after a decision is made,” Wyden said. “For a lot of Oregonians, it’s really a lifeline.”
Support for local public health departments was another area of Biden’s virus relief plan Wyden highlighted.
Renee Menkens, a member of the board of Coos County Friends of Public Health, told Wyden about the need.
“I’ve seen how budgets have changed in supporting our health department,” Menkens said. “But one of the issues with our public health services is funding, and as staff are being realigned to do more contact tracing and vaccine distribution and screenings, some of the other mandated services are not being able to be met as much as they would like to.”
Wyden responded by saying the revenue lost from tax cuts for high-paid executives should have been used to support public health departments instead.
“I think those folks have a size-seven halo over their heads,” Wyden said. “The question now are we going to write budgets that put our gratitude into the kinds of tools they need to do their job for vulnerable people?”
Infrastructure was also a key focus of questions posed to the senator.
“I think we’ve all learned during this pandemic how critical broadband is for so many things,” Coos County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins told Wyden. “The coast really struggles, as do many other rural areas, with adequate broadband.”
In response, Wyden noted a benefit included in the latest COVID-19 relief package that will provide funds for broadband expenses for low-income households once that program launches in the next several months.
But he also said expanding rural access to internet will be a priority while he’s in charge of the Senate Finance Committee.
“I want folks on the coast to know that every single time the word infrastructure comes up in Washington DC,” Wyden said, “I’m going to insist that broadband, especially rural broadband, be part of the equations.”
Other infrastructure questions focused on the water.
“My question is very local,” said Bill Divens of Gold Beach.
He went on to tell the senator the challenges his fishing business faced since the Rogue River hadn’t been dredged this year, and asked what Wyden could do to help. Wyden again pointed to certain tax cuts, saying instead that revenue could be spent on local infrastructure projects.
“What this is really all about, it’s a question of priorities,” Wyden said.
Several attendees also asked Wyden about several environmental issues, including the possible expansion of the Smith River National Recreation Area into Southern Oregon, Wyden’s proposed conservation public works program for unemployed workers and the rollback of some environmental protections by the Trump administration.
In response, he said Congress should consider ways to protect the environment in ways which support the local economy and community. Increasing natural recreational opportunities could support the South Coast’s economy, Wyden said.
“Recreation is a big economic engine. It’s a big economic multiplier,” Wyden said.
In all, Wyden reminded attendees he seeks their perspective on issues faced by South Coast residents. Members of his staff can assist residents in navigating federal COVID-19 relief programs, too.
“I want folks to know our doors are open,” Wyden said. “As far as I’m concerned, the discussion with Coos and Curry county is going to be in the ‘to be continued’ department.”
Wyden’s Medford office can be reached at 541-858-5122.