January 7, 2006
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sidestepped debate on the issue of off-reservation tribal gaming at Wednesday’s town hall meeting in Hood River.
But he spoke out strongly on other key issues, including the need to stem illegal immigration without punishing farmers, significantly expand wilderness areas on Mount Hood and extend the “county payments” law for lost timber receipts in national forests.
“On a cold afternoon we’re talking about important issues. We’re doing democracy the way it was suppose to be done,” he informed his audience at the State Street courthouse.
Since taking office in 1996, Wyden has kept his vow to host a public forum in all 36 Oregon counties at least once each year. He believes that is the best way to hear from his constituents about issues of local concern and further their understanding of pending federal legislation.
“Nobody’s going to have to pay to see me. The people who are here today are the ones who want to be heard,” said Wyden.
And Hood River County residents didn’t fail to deliver their opinions on issues of worldwide, national, or regional significance.
“A casino here would be devastating to both the environment and the social fabric, as well as making a mockery of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area,” said George Earley of Parkdale, a member of No Gorge Casino!
Wyden was urged by Paul Smith, co-founder of the opposition group, to give his view of off-reservation gaming. No Gorge Casino! formed to fight the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs’ proposal for a 500,000 square foot gambling center in Cascade Locks.
The tribes want to build in the city’s industrial park instead of developing 40 acres of trust property on a hillside above Hood River. The Warm Springs plan is currently undergoing federal review and a final decision is expected to be rendered by Interior Secretary Gale Norton later this year.
Wyden declined to engage in a discussion of the Warm Springs’ proposal. Instead, he said it was time for Congress to revisit the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 to determine if changes needed to be made. He said IGRA came about because the government had asked Native Americans to be more economically self-sufficient. And they had chosen to operate casinos as the means to that end.
“I happen to have real questions about whether this (gambling) is healthy for society. But the tribes did what we asked them to do and what they decided to do in the private sector was gaming,” he said.
Wyden gave kudos to U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., for crafting a Mount Hood master plan. However, he said their proposal to expand Wilderness areas by 40 percent, or 75,000 acres, was not sufficient.
Wyden introduced the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act of 2004 that called for 177,000 acres of new Wilderness. However, that legislation has not moved forward and Wyden intends to work with Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., to come up with a “companion” to the House bill. And then the Oregon delegation, he said, would attempt to find a workable compromise.
“Reading the tea leaves, do you think it might all come together in this session?” asked Scott Franke, president of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee (HRVRC).
He asked Wyden to support the settlement agreement between HRVRC and Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort. Under that plan reached through hours of mediation, Meadows has agreed to give up new development rights on its Cooper Spur Mountain Resort holdings. In exchange, HRVRC has agreed not to oppose Meadows’ intent to build condominiums near Government Camp in Clackamas County.
Wyden recommended that Franke and other supporters of greater wilderness preservation stay actively involved in the political process.
“Hopefully, we’ll end up with a strong bill that protects Oregon’s treasure,” he said.
Hood River County Commissioner Carol York asked Wyden how she and other officials could ensure that county “safety net” federal funding continued. She was concerned about the threat to rural school operations and road maintenance if money stopped coming to forest-dependent communities at the end of 2006.
Wyden said counties negatively affected by environmental regulations that lowered harvest levels in national forests — which comprise more than 50 percent of Oregon’s land base — needed compensation to make up for lost revenue.
He expressed worry that the issue had fallen off President George W. Bush’s radar screen with millions now needed to rebuild the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina and fund the war in Iraq. But Wyden had also wrangled with former Pres. Bill Clinton for the original funding – and said he would have no problem engaging in that battle again.
“Sound the call, play the bugle and get the word out. We’ve got to go to the ramparts for this money,” he said.
Fourth-generation orchardist Camille Hukari informed Wyden that House Resolution 4437, the Border Protection Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Act of 2005, foisted too much enforcement responsibility on employers.
“I understand the politics behind it and I understand the necessity but we’re looking for some hope. Otherwise, it’s time to sell the family farm,” she said.
Wyden agreed that the answer to illegal immigration doesn’t lie in penalizing America’s food producers. He said there was really no way for growers to know whether a worker’s Social Security card was forged or genuine.
However, he opposed giving amnesty to illegal immigrants. He said that would be unfair to individuals who lawfully gained citizenship.
“At a date certain, finally, once and for all, and permanently, I would give them the right to earn citizenship if they had been here for a period of time and been law abiding with a good work history,” said Wyden. “And then I would support sanctions and penalties for those who remained here illegally.”
He expressed support for the current Capitol Hill corruption probe. Wyden said lobbyist Jack Abrahamoff’s admission of guilt to bribing lawmakers has underscored the need to “drain the swamp” and change the campaign contribution laws.
“There’s going to be a lot of carpet calling, no question about it,” said Wyden. “There are going to be changes in the law and I’m going to support them, they are well needed.”
Wyden took the final few minutes of the town hall to tout his “simpler, flatter, fairer” tax plan. He urged those in attendance to get behind the legislation to simplify the tax code and require the wealthy to pay more taxes than middle class workers.
“We can’t do the things we’ve been talking about here unless we have a healthy middle class because they are the people who pay the bills,” said Wyden.