Walden’s town hall blitz swings into Ontario

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, answers a question from an audience member during a town hall meeting Monday at Four Rivers Cultural Center. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, believes in border security but he isn’t convinced that the entire government needs to be shut down to achieve it.

Walden made that point at a town hall session Monday at Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, part of a public meeting blitz across his Oregon district. More than 60 people attended the session.

Walden said a country that can’t control its borders can’t control its own security. Yet he said he doesn’t feel a political battle between President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress should mean local federal employees are out of work.

“What does a Vale BLM employee have to do with this fight?” said Walden.

The Bureau of Land Management is the agency in Malheur County seeing the biggest impact from the month-long shutdown.

Walden’s views on this topic are not new. He recently broke with his party on a vote to curb the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22. He joined six other Republicans in the House, voting for a spending measure introduced by Democrats to fund seven agencies.

Walden touched on an array of subjects at the town hall, including border security, wolves and healthcare for veterans.

More than 60 local residents arrived at Four Rivers Cultural Center Monday to take part in a town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

After Walden updated the crowd on his work in the Congress, he fielded questions from constituents. Walden said he’d like to see wolves – which are registered as endangered under the Endangered Species Act – “delisted” and their management turned over to the states. Walden said he would continue to support broadband infrastructure in areas like Malheur County and pointed out that money for high-speed internet in rural areas was part of the Farm Bill passed by Congress in December.

Walden also lauded congressional work on wildfire legislation, including solving what he called the “fire borrowing issue.” Because of a funding gap, for years the Forest Service has had to raid its own budget to cover the cost of huge wildfires across the West. That meant less money for other programs such as forest management and restoration designed to cut down on forest fires.

As part of a spending bill approved last year, the Forest Service will get $2 billion a year to pay for wildfires. The new funding will start in 2020.

“I think that will make a difference,” said Walden.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden answers a question from Ontario Mayor Riley Hill Monday at a town hall meeting at Four Rivers Cultural Center. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

Walden also touched on efforts to fight the nationwide opioid epidemic and to create more health care options for veterans.

People in the audience asked questions on a range of topics, from why Walden voted on specific measures to wild horses in Malheur County to border security.

Kay Riley, manager of Snake River Produce Co. LLC., in Nyssa asked about border security and an agriculture worker program. Walden said border security is not a one-sized-fits-all paradigm but should be crafted as a “package” that addresses the concerns of agriculturists.

Ron Haidle, the chief executive officer of Malheur Federal Credit Union, asked whether a boost in fuel taxes – much like the 10-cent gas tax hike in Oregon’s huge transportation bill passed in 2017 – would ever “reach the federal level?”

Walden said President Trump already advocated for a boost in the federal gas tax to help pay for nationwide infrastructure improvements.

“At some point we are going to have to fund infrastructure. We have to figure out how to pay for it and there are no easy answers,” said Walden.

Another audience member touched on bipartisanship and whether Democrats and Republicans even speak to each other in Congress.

Walden said the perception of dissension between lawmakers isn’t accurate. He said most of the work in Congress is completed through cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.

“It is the collisions that get all the attention and that is unfortunate,” said Walden. Ontario Mayor Riley Hill asked Walden about high-profile Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cortez, who represents the congressional district that includes portions of the Bronx and Queens in New York City, gained national attention last year when she defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent. Ocasio-Cortez labels herself as a Democratic socialist.

Walden said Ocasio-Cortez is just one of several new lawmakers that came into the House for the next session of Congress.

“We will see how good a legislator she is,” said Walden.

Another audience member focused on the federal deficit – now exceeding $779 billion.

“We have to figure out how we don’t bankrupt the next generation,” said Walden. “The debt level on Americans is not sustainable.”

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.