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Wyden holds virtual town hall in Medford

Mail Tribune/File photo Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, hosted a virtual town hall meeting Friday from Medford.
Oregon senator discusses multiple issues with Jackson County residents

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, fielded questions Friday on topics ranging from Ukraine to the lack of high-speed internet in the Applegate Valley during a virtual town hall meeting for Jackson County.

Although the event was online, Wyden visited Jackson County in person, borrowing a Mail Tribune conference room to open his laptop and talk with residents from downtown Medford.

Some residents voiced concerns about Russia’s violent invasion of Ukraine, which has resulted in the deaths of soldiers and civilians, while also triggering a humanitarian and refugee crisis.

Wyden said Russian President Vladimir Putin thought Ukrainians would wave Russian flags and welcome the invaders, but instead they’re fighting back.

“The conflict is not going well for Mr. Putin,” said Wyden, who called the Russian president a war criminal.

The war caused gas prices in Oregon and around the world to soar to record levels this month. Russia is a significant producer of oil products for the world. Countries around the globe are placing economic sanctions on Russia.

“Oregonians are getting clobbered at the pump,” Wyden said.

He said neighborhood gas stations aren’t the ones getting rich. Instead, Wyden said big oil companies are making astounding profits while enjoying significant tax breaks.

Wyden said oil companies are saying they need more chances to drill, but they aren’t using some of their existing leases. If that continues, he said, big oil companies should have some of their lavish tax breaks taken away and the money should be used to help Oregonians.

With another wildfire season approaching, a resident said he’s concerned the federal government isn’t contracting for enough big helicopters to help fight fires. Wyden said he shares those concerns and is investigating the issue.

An Applegate Valley resident said the area is a telecommunications dead zone without adequate cellphone coverage, landline service or broadband internet. She said she’s grateful Congress approved funding for rural telecommunications, but she’s worried projects won’t roll out effectively.

Wyden said internet service is critical for education, jobs, telehealth appointments and other needs. He said he’s determined to get service into every rural corner of Oregon, although the battle has been long.

On the mental health front, a resident said senior citizens have a very difficult time getting appointments with mental health counselors and therapists because of a lack of Medicare reimbursement.

By law, Wyden said, mental and physical health care are supposed to be treated equally, but they still aren’t. He said he’s committed to boosting the number of counselors, therapists, social workers and psychiatrists so people of all ages can get care.

A resident asked whether the U.S. could fund universal health care with a national value-added tax. A value-added tax includes a sales tax paid by customers, plus taxes on suppliers, manufacturers and other businesses along the way.

Wyden said he doesn’t favor value-added taxes because they are regressive, hitting low- and middle-income people the hardest. Efforts to mitigate some of the harm by excluding essentials like groceries lead to hassles and red tape for small businesses trying to collect the tax, he said.

A resident raised concerns that many other states are restricting voter access to the ballot.

“Protecting Democracy requires protecting the vote,” Wyden said.

Wyden noted he was the first senator to be elected by vote-by-mail, and former Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, was the second. Wyden said more Republicans need to listen to the opinions of fellow Republicans such as the late Dennis Richardson, formerly Oregon’s Secretary of State, that Oregon’s vote-by-mail system is not tainted by fraud.

Wyden said he appreciated all the thoughtful questions and suggestions from Jackson County residents.

“Nobody was shouting at each other. Nobody was screaming at each other. Nobody was threatening anybody. We’re thinking about how to tackle big issues,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.