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Merkley Talks Up New Federal Money For Home-State Projects

A new federal spending bill passed by Congress Thursday includes money for a welter of Oregon projects that range from hemp research at Oregon State University to irrigation piping in Central Oregon.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said the spending bill provided a general boost of new money for programs that allowed him to help push several Oregon projects.

None of them are in the financial league seen in the 1980s and 1990s when then-Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., chaired the appropriations committee. He would frequently insert language in spending bills ordering the federal government to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in aid for things like Portland’s light rail or a new building at Oregon Health & Science University.

Such earmarks, which were once derided by critics as pork-barrel spending, were banned by Congress in 2011.

But lawmakers can still find indirect ways of channeling money to favored home-state projects. And Merkley, the state’s only member on the appropriations committee of either chamber, plays a big role in finding aid sought by constituents and other lawmakers from the state.

“The mission in my mind has been to try to fight for things that are important in every corner of the state,” Merkley told reporters Thursday.

Merkley boasted that he helped get an additional $35 million for irrigation pipes in Central Oregon. The money will continue the work on replacing canals with enclosed pipes, so that farmers and other users lose less water to leakage and evaporation.

In addition, he said he obtained more than $6 million for different programs to help the recovery of endangered sucker fish in the Klamath Lake Basin while combating the toxic algae blooms on the lake.

Another $2.5 million will to toward hemp research at Oregon State University, which claims the largest hemp research center in the nation. The crop was fully legalized in 2018 and Merkley said he thinks it could someday be the state’s most valuable crop. A big reason for the optimism is that hemp is the primary source of cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD and used in a wide variety of wellness products.

Merkley said the new federal bill also allocates $20 million to develop a federal regulatory program for that ingredient.

Merkley said he was also able to get research money to study the effects of winegrapes tainted by wildfire smoke, a big concern in Oregon, as well as a national increase in money for low-income housing and homeless services. And the bill provides help for owners of Oregon fishing trawlers seeking relief from what Merkley described as a botched federal loan program.

<p>U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, Tumalo Irrigation District Manager Ken&nbsp;Rieck, and Natural Resource Conservation&nbsp;Director Matt Lohr&nbsp;examine an irrigation pipe.&nbsp;</p>

Emily Cureton / OPB


U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, Tumalo Irrigation District Manager Ken Rieck, and Natural Resource Conservation Director Matt Lohr examine an irrigation pipe. 

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.