Wyden ‘Throws Doors of Government Wide Open’ in Umatilla Town Hall

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U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden answers questions at Umatilla High School during a town hall meeting on Thursday, Jan. 4. (Photo by Yasser Marte/East Oregonian)

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden held his 1,069th town hall meeting at Umatilla High School where he answered questions on topics ranging from education, artificial intelligence, the war in Gaza and more.

“This is where I throw the doors of government wide open,” Wyden said, before immediately taking questions.

A UHS student asked Wyden his view on after-school programs.

“The reason they are so important is it gives students a chance to pick up practical applications to what they are learning in the classroom,” Wyden said, adding that he talked with a student recently who was using artificial intelligence or AI for research.

“He wants to use the after-school program to build up what he’s learned in class,” Wyden said. “These types of programs will lead to good jobs, good careers.” The senator praised the school’s robotics program, which has grown significantly over the past few years, calling it the “gold standard.”

Wyden was asked about the war in Gaza and why there is not a big push for a sustained cease-fire.

“I’m Jewish, but I’m committed to supporting humanity – all of humanity,” Wyden said. “In the Middle East, both the Jewish and Palestinian mom worry about their child not coming home at the end of the day.” Wyden put the blame on Hamas for its lack of interest in a cease-fire.

He said there needs to be a two-state solution in which the “Palestinians recognize the right of Israel to exist.” He said he supports an increase in humanitarian aid to the region.

When asked why the United States continues to invest in foreign aid, Wyden said that funding represents only about 1 percent of the federal budget.

“What we have to decide is in a dangerous world, do we want allies?” He said the U.S. must continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia or “Putin will take over that whole area. It’s in our national interest.”

Wyden was also asked about the future of the Snake River dams. He noted that a report released in 2022 by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray concluded that removing the dams was not feasible. He called the Columbia River “our treasure,” and that he supports multiple uses of the river including recreation, trade and protecting fish.

On the issue of technology, Wyden said there needs to be continued investment in broadband access and noted the $24 million federal grant announced last summer to improve connectivity in rural Oregon.

“If you’re running a small business and you don’t have broadband, you’re not going to have a small business very long, right?”

The next big thing in technology, Wyden said, was artificial intelligence or AI. He talked about the Algorithm Accountability Act that he wrote which requires companies to assess the impacts of the AI systems they use and sell, creates new transparency about when and how such systems are used, and empowers consumers to make informed choices when they interact with AI systems.

“I think we need to get our arms around these algorithms,” he said. “People think that the algorithm is just some neutral thing, but no way. People put their biases and their own views to this.”

When asked about the rising cost of a college education, Wyden said he supports expansion of the Pell Grant program and additional funding for trade schools. He said welders will be in high demand in Oregon in the coming years.

On the issue of mental health, Wyden said more support is needed for students with mental health challenges.

“If we do more to help young people when they are in school, we’ll be less likely to have to deal with them when they are adults on the street,” he said.

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