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Merkley fields hard questions at meeting

PHOENIX — A local high school teacher had a rhetorical question for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley during his town hall meeting Monday: How could the nation justify spending billions of dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet not adequately fund schools within its own borders?

"Let me start by noting that, right now, we as parents are the first whose children are getting less education than we got in the history of the United States," replied Merkley, D-Ore. "And that is in context of a global knowledge economy where education is essential to the success of our children and the future success of our economy.

"I'm concerned we are spending too much on foreign wars and foreign bases and not enough on infrastructure and education here," he added.

Concern about everything from the ongoing wars overseas to the solvency of the Social Security program were aired during the meeting, held at Phoenix High School. About 70 people attended.

Merkley began the meeting with a moment of silence for Marine Corps Sgt. Matthew DeYoung, 26, of Talent, who was killed last month in Afghanistan. Merkley also announced that Army Pfc. Cody Smith, 20, of Medford, whom the senator visited last week at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., would be transferring soon to a medical facility in California where his treatment will continue for his wounds after being shot in Afghanistan.

"He is in good spirits and has made tremendous progress at Walter Reed," Merkley reported.

Later, in response to a question related to corruption involving military contracts, Merkley said he would like to see Americans in uniform leave Afghanistan. They already are scheduled to leave Iraq this summer.

"Our men and women, our sons and daughters, are paying the price with their lives, terrible injuries and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) every day they are there," Merkley said of Afghanistan. "We do not speak the languages. We do not understand their culture. It is an enormously complex arena. We have transitioned from a mission to take out al-Qaida training camps into one of nation-building in a country we can't begin to understand.

"I just think it is time to get our sons and daughters home," he added, drawing the loudest applause of the morning.

Citing Pentagon reports of missing funds, Phoenix resident Tracy Phillips told Merkley that Congress needs to take action to stop corruption involving military contractors. "What will it take to eliminate this?" she asked.

"I don't have a magic bullet for it but it is deeply troubling," Merkley responded. "I've been very perturbed about single-source contracts with very large firms that have repeatedly been found to have overcharged. Those companies need to be ruled out in future contracts."

Mike Duffy, a local member of the American Postal Workers Union, was worried about efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to take away collective bargaining.

"We're working to help the economy and to help the public regain confidence in the postal service," he told Merkley, adding that his union has worked to reduce costs while providing service. Later, a member of a local electrical union spoke out against efforts in Congress to cut the budget of the National Labor Relations Board.

Merkley noted that he supports collective bargaining as well as the NLRB.

A man who described himself as a representative of the home builders of Jackson County asked Merkley if he was aware that Medford was leading the list of the highest rate of foreclosures per capita in Oregon. He asked the senator to discuss his views on that issue, including bankruptcy judges.

"Medford and Bend were the two epicenters of the biggest burst bubbles in the state," Merkley said, noting that a mortgage modification program needs to include a single point of contact so that families working with banks to modify their mortgages don't have to work with countless people.

Secondly, the foreclosure track needs to be set aside until the modification track has time to be completed, he said.

"A third piece is to have a third party come in and assess the results before any foreclosures can proceed," he said, noting such a system has been successful in Connecticut and Maine. "It creates an honest broker in the middle."

Currently, a bankruptcy can modify a second house or a vacation home, but not a family home, he said.

"If they had that power, many analysts believe that it would really create an incentive for the servicers to get the modification done," he said, noting that bankruptcy judges tend to be motivators to resolve the situation.

While he was quick to observe there was no silver bullet, he noted that an approach that includes some of those elements seems to be the best solution.

"If we could do more to stop this downward slide in prices, stop the foreclosures, then not only will families do a lot better but the market will start to do a lot better," he said.

"I am very concerned about Social Security and disability benefits being cut," Medford area resident Lauren Spector, 64, who was sitting in a wheelchair, told the senator.

Merkley reassured her that the Social Security Trust Fund will remain solvent for at least 26 years without any changes.

"Social Security has been under attack for years," he said. "Every time you hear attacks on Social Security, you have to ask yourself, 'Who are the folks who keep trying to privatize Social Security?' "

The answer, he suggested, is that privatizing could be a tremendous windfall for some in the financial sector.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Merkley fields hard questions at meeting