Oregon's senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden went back to school on Thursday.
As part of his ongoing "Listening to the Future Tour" to hear from students in a dozen high schools across the state, the Democrat fielded questions from classes at Phoenix High School in the morning, followed by an afternoon session at Ashland High School.
Although he joked about preferring soft-ball questions at the Phoenix session, he indicated that hard-ball subjects would also be accepted. The students did not disappoint.
"Recently in our agriculture class, we were talking about how Oregon has one of the highest minimum wages in the U.S.," said student Lillian Tegner. "We were talking about the pros and cons of that, how we needed a high minimum wage so people can support their families, and yet some people are losing their jobs because some companies would have less money to pay their workers."
With that, the sophomore asked Wyden a decidedly non-sophomoric question: Where does he stand on the issue?
"I've supported Oregon's minimum wage," he said. "But what I really support is policies that raise everybody's wage."
He launched an in-depth explanation of how increasing Oregon exports with homegrown and value-added goods can help its economy and increase employment around the state.
Senior Micah Furlong, after noting he was dressed in a suit and tie because he was participating in student government, asked Wyden how he would cut the budget.
"The trick is to hold down the rate of growth," Wyden said. "For instance, if we could get close to holding the health care costs to the rate of inflation, that would be a huge, huge triumph, generating billions of dollars in savings."
The three main costs in the budget include health care, military and the interest paid on the national debt, Wyden said.
"Everything else combined is 30 percent," he estimated. "So the real trick is to keep down the rate of growth while you help grow the economy."
Some 200 students attended the hourlong session held in the school's theater. Classes included agricultural leadership, psychology, advanced placement government, international studies, student leadership, speech and debate and representatives of the student government.
Wyden is chairman of the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a member of the Intelligence Committee and on a special committee of senators and representatives whose mission is to ensure Congress does not repeat the recent partial federal government shutdown.
While it is counterintuitive for students to think about Medicare and taxes at their age, both loom large in their near future, he said. If Congress can't figure out a way to provide affordable quality health care for seniors, it will directly impact today's young people, he said.
"Because all the money will go there and there won't be money for education, student loans, parks, environment, transportation — all the stuff you care about is directly affected by our ability to come up with a solution that ensures our seniors get good, quality affordable care," he warned.
However, he also stressed the nation has to get control of its debts by prudently cutting costs.
Two students asked about two different aspects of Obamacare, officially known as the Affordable Care Act. Others wondered about nuclear proliferation, subsidies for cattle ranchers and the federal government's monitoring of cellphones.
One student asked whether there will be another government shutdown soon because Congress only extended the debt deadline to early next year instead of resolving it.
"I don't think we will have another shutdown," Wyden told the students. "Anyone who runs for re-election in 2014 — the next election for Congress — and is part of something that involves shutting down the government will find voters very angry.
"We lost billions of dollars for our economy during this 16-day shutdown," he added. "I think the consequences of another shutdown, particularly for anyone trying to run for re-election in 2014, will be so negative."
Another student wanted Wyden's take on reopening mental health facilities that have been closed because of budget constraints.
"It is so important from a health standpoint, an economic standpoint and a quality-of-life standpoint," he said, noting that providing those services improves health, allows most mental health recipients to contribute to the economy and permits them to have a fuller life.
One student asked where the senator stood on the question of whether marijuana should be legal. Wyden replied he hadn't made up his mind on the marijuana issue, but called for allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which doesn't have the drug found in marijuana.
"Nobody gets high on hemp," he said, noting it would be a money-maker for Oregon farmers. "But I am not there yet on the question of legalizing marijuana for personal use. I continue to listen to both sides."
After the hourlong session, senior Cristol Meza said it was the first time she had heard about the inner workings of government from an elected official.
"I'm glad I got to hear about everything going on," she said. "I learned a lot about the government shutdown and health care, which I was pretty interested in."
Phoenix High School Principal Jani Hale said the event was an excellent exercise in government for the students.
"When you work with high school students, you'll notice they haven't developed the cynicism," she said. "They still feel their voice counts. And they are at a great age to ask those tough questions and get good, solid answers. These are very intelligent people."
Wyden also said he was impressed by the questions.
"They had done their homework — they showed a real sense of maturity," he said. "These students are way ahead of where I was in high school."
In other matters, he said his long-anticipated timber bill concerning the future management of federal O&C lands would have been released already had it not been for the recent government shutdown.
"We will have it here pretty quickly," he said. "We will offer a significant increase in the harvest. We are also trying to balance protection for conservation areas and watersheds."
He expects it to be out before the end of November.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.