U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley toured the Rogue Valley on Wednesday, bashing college debt, saying the country needs to shift its goals away from military spending and invest in education, infrastructure and federal debt reduction.

Merkley, a Democrat, running for the first time as an incumbent, stayed away from politics in public contacts, but said in an interview that his opponent, neurosurgeon Monica Wehby, a Republican, has “a very different outlook on the world, has signed onto the Koch brothers agenda, wants to gut the Clean Air Act and restore and expand the Bush tax cuts, especially for the wealthy.” 

Merkley leads by almost 20 percent in recent polls. In a stop at Southern Oregon University, he chatted with student leaders about the crushing debt many face and took a stroll with construction workers through the $18 million renovation of the SOU Science Building, headed for completion next fall.

He said a proposed extension of tax cuts originally signed into law by President George W. Bush would primarily benefit “the best off” and cost over $1 trillion through the next decade if enacted.

Instead, he told students, such wealth should go to education, infrastructure projects and deficit downsizing, which would, he said, stimulate small business, home ownership and the ability of young people to get loans, further helping the economy.

He also differs from Wehby on the Hobby Lobby decision (allowing some firms to opt out of including contraception in health care plans), the Citizens United decision (allowing campaign contributions by nonprofits) and the Bring Jobs Home Act to give tax credits for firms that in-source jobs to the U.S.

Merkley asked several students to talk about their future hopes and how college debt changes that path. Students uniformly said it will be hard to establish careers, businesses and get loans on cars, homes or startups with a typical college debt load of $50,000.

Political science senior Dylan Bloom said his family lost everything in the 2008 crash, but he’s already launched his political consultant startup. However, he added, he and his parents are facing a mountain of debt which hampers the ability to get loans to get started.

Political science graduate Sarah Westover, now working for a nonprofit organization, left SOU with high honors four years ago, and says her monthly payments just pay down interest and she can’t get a loan for a vehicle.

Merkley responded, “There is a question facing young people: ‘should I tie this millstone around my neck?’” Students, he said, should be able to get income-adjusted loans and be able to refinance college debt, which now is the largest debt sector in the country, even exceeding all credit card debt.

The military budget of the U.S. is bigger than the next 14 highest-spending nations, he said, adding that if the “misguided” $120 billion annual spending on the Afghanistan War were used here it would fatten spending on deficit cuts, infrastructure and education at $40 billion a year, which would handle much of student money woes.

The senator noted that he was the son of a millworker and was easily able to pay for college by working summers, however, taxpayers, he said, abdicated their role as investors in the higher education of the coming generation when they voted to cap property taxes, forcing the state to take over K-12 school spending.

“Many students say, ‘maybe I shouldn’t go to college,’ as they don’t see it as the path of opportunity. But we’re losing the essence of the American dream, that education is a human resource enterprise.”

Merkley said his conservative colleagues in the Senate have little sympathy for college debt and suggest young people find careers that don’t require college, such as electricians and sheet metal workers.

The U.S. only spends 2 percent of gross domestic product on infrastructure, compared to China’s 10 percent, but such spending would be a fast track to jobs, said Merkley.

Sitting in on the conclave, SOU President Roy Saigo said, “We need bipartisan support for education. We’re eating our seed corn and taking our eye off the ball (for creativity and innovation to compete in the global market).”

Noting the lack of interest in voting among young people, Merkley suggested lowering the voting age to 17, so students can pick up the habit from families and coummunity, an idea which SOU students raised hands to agree with.

Merkley won his seat in 2008, challenging incumbent Gordon Smith during a “Democratic wave” led by Barack Obama in a crashing economy but, he said, this race is very different, as he has to be at work in Washington much of the time, then “rush back here,” which is the same disadvantage the incumbent had earlier.

Merkley’s tour of the valley included stops in Medford and Grants Pass.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.