Wyden speaks at AHS, defends support for health care legislation

The emerging health care legislation isn't the bipartisan, universal step he envisioned, but Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said Thursday it's "a start" that "outlaws the vicious practice of declining coverage for pre-existing conditions."

At a town hall meeting at Ashland High School, Wyden was criticized by an audience member for supporting the "totally partisan" bill.

"My first choice was a different route," Wyden said in response, "but that stepped on the toes of a lot of powerful interests because it was real change."

Wyden, a Democrat, said he was faced with the choice of "whining and not participating or plunging in and trying to bring a bipartisan philosophy as much as I can," and chose the latter.

Wyden, answering questions from an audience of mostly of high school students, lauded a free choice voucher in the legislation. Under that component of the bill, if medical expenses exceed 8 percent of a person's income and no subsidy is available, an insured person is allowed to "essentially fire your insurance company."

Noting "the status quo in health care is indefensible," Wyden said he would continue to work for legal reform of "inhumane insurance practices."

In the question and answer session, Wyden also said he'd work for extension of federal timber payments to Oregon counties, payments that have already been extended twice, but are set to expire again in 2011.

He said a big part of Oregon's funding puzzle is getting agreement from both timber and environmental interests on a bill for western Oregon similar to the one hammered out in December for central and eastern Oregon.

The bill, called the Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act of 2009 protects old growth forests and waterways but allows a major expansion of logging smaller trees.

"Oregonians say they want jobs and they want to protect our (natural) treasure," said Wyden, who is chairman of the Public Lands and Forestry Subcommittee. "Till last year, I felt our natural resource policy was leading to a lose-lose. In the last year, as symbolized by the Eastside Forestry bill, I think we've got a chance to get back to win-win."

Wyden gave students a quick civics lesson, encouraging them to get into public, elective life and pointing out how real progress is achieved only when both sides of issues are able to sit down together and negotiate.

That process was stymied, said Wyden, when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission took over siting powers from the state, opening the way for a liquid natural gas line from Coos Bay to Malin, without Oregonians being able to negotiate on its impact, location or necessity.

"Unless you change the law and bring authority back to the state, it's a pretty uphill exercise," said Wyden. "We don't have the forum now to come up with an Oregon-style solution. FERC has more applications for natural gas (pipelines) than we can possible use. We've got homeowners, industry and environmental folks unhappy."

Some questioners objected to a proposed Siskiyou Crest National Monument, prompting Wyden to say, "any time there's a public lands issue, I handle it the same way; I set out to do some serious listening. You don't pass responsible legislation by putting your boot on someone's throat."

Ron Bjork, president of the Jackson County Farm Bureau told Wyden "we oppose cap-and-trade, period." Cap and trade programs allow industry to buy and sell credits for emissions that have been linked to climate change.

In response, Wyden expressed his faith that what's good for the environment is good for the economy.

"We can do both. We've got a lot of industries saying that if you get climate change right, we can make a lot of money " in greening the economy. It's not a choice between jobs and the environment. In Oregon, what we do best is grow things, so let's add value to them and ship them somewhere."

Asked about President Obama's recent announcement of a surge of troops in the Afghan War, Wyden said the Taliban and al Qaeda in the region represent an "extraordinary threat to our people."

"I'm often asked about the comparison of Afghanistan with Vietnam," he said. "People are asking, is this another Vietnam? Well, it could be another Afghanistan. It's a very difficult part of the world in which to bring about dramatic change quickly. Russia was very involved there and retreated. My concern is we need to have understandable objectives of our policies."

Wyden pointed out in the audience former Congressman Bob Smith, a colleague during their years in the House, now retired in Medford. In an interview later, Smith, a Republican, said of Wyden, "He's growing and I appreciate that. He's taking positions that aren't in line with the Democratic Party."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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